Story: Rugby union

Page 8. International rugby – southern hemisphere

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South Africa

Historically New Zealand’s strongest opponent has been South Africa, against which New Zealand has had 59% success – 61 wins from 103 games by 2022. The contests began with drawn series in New Zealand in 1921 and South Africa in 1928. Subsequent series losses to South Africa at home in 1937 and in South Africa in 1949 wounded national pride. There was revenge, and huge public interest, in New Zealand’s 3–1 victory at home in 1956. Thereafter, until South Africa’s sporting isolation because of apartheid, series were won by the host country – New Zealand in 1965 and 1981, and South Africa in 1960, 1970 and 1976.

During these years rugby contacts with South Africa were often controversial because of the country’s racial policies. The New Zealand Rugby Football Union (NZRFU) did not select Māori for teams going there in 1928, 1949 and 1960, in accordance with South African wishes. This policy changed in the 1960s and New Zealand sent a multiracial team for the first time in 1970. Such was New Zealand’s obsession with beating South Africa that the NZRFU remained adamant the (mainly white) Springboks should tour in 1981, precipitating widespread civil unrest. After a scheduled 1985 tour of South Africa was cancelled following legal action, a covertly organised tour by a rebel New Zealand team, the Cavaliers, went ahead in 1986.

After the coming of professional rugby in 1996, New Zealand played South Africa as part of an annual Tri-Nations competition with Australia.


New Zealand’s first international test match was against Australia in 1903, and for many years there were regular contests. The New Zealanders considered the Wallabies relatively easy-beats. However, from the 1990s, especially with the coming of professional rugby, this changed. By 2016 New Zealand had beaten Australia 122 times in 175 matches (70% success).

Worst day

Perhaps the darkest day in All Blacks rugby was 3 September 1949, when the All Blacks lost two test matches. The first, at Athletic Park, Wellington, saw New Zealand lose to Australia 11–6. Some hours later the All Blacks were beaten by South Africa 9–3 in Durban. The NZRFU had arranged a tour by Australia to give Māori players excluded from the South African tour the opportunity to play test rugby. Four Māori played at Athletic Park – captain Johnny Smith, Vince Bevan, Ben Couch and ‘Kiwi’ Blake.

Since 1932, matches against Australia have been played for the Bledisloe Cup, which was donated by New Zealand Governor-General Lord Bledisloe. Although it was ignored for several years, including being left in storage in Melbourne after a tourism display, the cup gained a new marketing life after Australia won it in 1979. Bledisloe Cup matches are now a high point of the trans-Tasman sporting year. By 2022, New Zealand had won or retained the trophy 50 times to Australia’s 12.


From 1996 New Zealand played South Africa and Australia annually in the Tri-Nations competition. In 2012 this became the Rugby Championship and included Argentina. By 2022 New Zealand had won the Tri-Nations or Rugby Championship 19 times, with Australia and South Africa winning four times each.

How to cite this page:

Ron Palenski, 'Rugby union - International rugby – southern hemisphere', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 July 2024)

Story by Ron Palenski, published 5 Sep 2013, updated 1 Sep 2016