From the 1890s social changes allowed rural people to get involved in recreation in nearby small towns. Improved transport, such as train services, better roads and (from about 1910) cars, made it easier for farm workers to travel to local centres and for sports teams to visit their neighbours.
The 1894 Shops and Shop Assistants Act prescribed a weekly half-day holiday, freeing up workers in small towns to enjoy recreation. Farm workers tended to follow suit. As smaller farms were established, rural populations grew, and the spread of dairying led to farmers meeting and socialising at the dairy factory or creamery.
At the end of the 19th century, small towns began to set aside grounds for team sports, and organised teams emerged.
Rugby became the game of choice for young rural males. It was first played in New Zealand in 1870, and within six years there were teams in rural communities including Temuka, Rangitīkei, Hāwera and Riverton. By the beginning of the 20th century most small towns had rugby teams. Rugby players were more likely to be from farms than football or cricket players – perhaps because of the importance of physical size and strength. The game was popular among rural Māori.
Travelling to the game was part of the fun – as were the smoke concerts (men’s gatherings, with alcohol and tobacco smoking) and drinking afterwards. From the inter-war years, rugby matches also attracted large numbers of spectators. By the 1950s in the Amuri district, most people attended the weekly game.
In 1960, at the opening of Culverden District High School, the minister of education offered the young Michael O’Callaghan autographs of the parliamentary Cabinet. ‘No thanks,’ Michael replied, ‘I collect only important people like All Blacks.’ 1 He became an All Black himself eight years later.
In some areas, cricket began very early. Rangitīkei had a cricket club in 1866, games were played between married and single men in Oxford in 1867, and further north in the Amuri district, stations held games on Sunday afternoons. But cricket was never as popular as rugby with farming folk. Preparing the pitch was difficult, and in dairying districts like Taranaki the game was killed by the demands of evening milking. Rugby, however, was played in winter, when cows were dry.
Because summer was a busy time on the farm, summer sports were less popular with country people. Tennis was played on private courts. Small towns had clubs for rifle shooting and bowls, but they were mainly played by locals, not farmers. In the 1920s, golf became popular as car ownership spread. Women’s netball took off a bit later, in the 1940s – but there were few unmarried women on farms, so most players were townies.