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Minor outdoor sports

by Megan Cook

Taking part in outdoor sport is a way of life for many New Zealanders, bringing with it the thrill of competition and the pleasure of social interaction. Kiwis have embraced outdoor sports of many kinds from around the world, from dragon boat racing to American football.

American football

American football, or gridiron, is played by two teams using an oval ball on a 110- by 49-metre field. Each team has 11 attacking and 11 defensive players. Play stops to allow each team’s offensive or defensive players to take the field when possession of the ball shifts from one team to the other. The team with possession of the ball attempts to carry or pass it to the scoring area at the end of the field (the end zone). They must gain at least 10 yards (9 metres) in four plays (also known as downs) to continue advancing the ball. If they do not manage this, possession of the ball passes to the opposing team.

A touchdown is achieved by advancing the ball into the opposing team’s end zone and is worth six points. A field goal is achieved by kicking the ball over the goal posts and is worth three points. If a touchdown is followed by advancing the ball into the end zone from 2 or 3 yards (1.8 or 2.7 metres) back from the goal line, two extra points can be won, and if the ball is place-kicked over the crossbar one extra point is scored.


Local competitions take place in the Auckland and Wellington regions. In 2013 the Wellington league had three teams, but the usual 11 players on the field can drop to nine or seven due to the difficulty of maintaining numbers. The Auckland league, with seven teams, was a stronger league.

New Zealand, Australian and, since 2012, American Samoan teams compete in the Oceania Bowl (an International Federation of American Football competition). New Zealand has had some victories, including one of the first matches when the under-19 Iron Blacks won in 1999, and then again in 2009.

Scouting for talent

In its home country, American football involves large sums of money, and in 2010 New Zealanders who played rugby union and league were being eyed up by local scout Shannon Stowers. Rookie (beginner) professionals in the United States earn over US$300,000 a year – and a few Kiwis (including Stowers) have had discussions with US teams or won US football scholarships.


The first American football clubs in New Zealand were set up in Auckland in 1980, followed by Wellington and the New Zealand American Football Association (NZAFA) later in the decade. NZAFA joined with Gridiron New Zealand in 2004 to become American Football New Zealand.

At the local level, clubs in Auckland-Waikato and Wellington-Manawatū began regional competitions in 1982 and 1990 respectively. No single team has dominated either competition. The Oceania Federation of American Football, formed in 1999, includes New Zealand, Australia and (since 2010) American Samoa.

Australian rules football

Australian rules football (Aussie rules) is a fast, mobile game played by two teams of 18 players on an oval grass field measuring at least 150 by 135 metres. Games comprise four 20-minute quarters and points are scored by kicking the ball through the opposing team’s goal. There are two sets of goalposts; a kick between the inner posts is called a goal and is worth six points, and a kick between an inner and outer post, called a behind, is worth one point.

Players can position themselves anywhere on the field, moving the ball by kicking, carrying, or handballing (holding the ball stationary with one hand and punching it with the other). A spectacular feature of the game is when a player leaps high in the air to take a catch, which is called a mark.


In 2013 there were regional leagues in Auckland, Waikato, Wellington, Canterbury and Otago. A national provincial championship for under-18s and adults is held every December. The premier competition was won by the Mid-Canterbury Eagles in 2011 and 2012. The national team, the New Zealand Hawks, competes in the International Cup, the Oceania competition and against Australian touring teams.

New Zealand-born players, notably Trent Croad, Wayne Schwass, and Joe Sellwood, have also played in the professional Australian Football League (AFL) and at state level. In 2013 the AFL staged a premiership match in New Zealand for the first time.

At junior level, Aussie rules began establishing itself as a sport in primary and secondary schools in the 2000s. In 2012 more than 600 secondary-school students played Aussie rules.

Play it our way

In the 1870s and 1880s Australian rules officials attempted to persuade the Otago Rugby Football Union that they should play the Aussie game, but had no luck. The Otago RFU did no more than note a letter had been received and then ignore it.


Australian rules football (then known as Victorian rules) was first played in New Zealand in the 1860s, and in 1904 there were club games being played in Auckland. The New Zealand Football League was formed in 1907, and the following year there were clubs in Auckland, Waihī, Wellington and Christchurch. At the 1908 Australian championships, the New Zealanders beat New South Wales and Queensland, finishing fourth.

Despite this promising beginning, there was a long break before New Zealanders really took up Aussie rules. In 1965 and 1975 a Sydney club played exhibition games in Auckland and Wellington. Local Aussie rules associations were formed in the 1970s, and a new national body was formed in 1994. In 1995 New Zealand competed in the first international Australian rules football championship in Darwin. In 2013 the first ever Australian Football League premiership game outside Australia was played at Wellington’s Westpac Stadium between St Kilda and the Sydney Swans.

Gaelic football

Gaelic football enthusiasts describe the game as a combination of association football, rugby and basketball. It is a fast game, played by two teams of 15 on a 137- by 82-metre grass pitch using a harder, heavier version of a soccer ball. During the 70-minute game, the ball can be carried, kicked and passed with a punch or slap. The field has rugby-union-style goal posts, with a net extending below the crossbar. One point is scored if the ball is hit with a fist or kicked over the crossbar; three points if it is kicked past the goalkeeper into the net below it.

Earthquake impact

Owen McKenna, a driving force in Christchurch Gaelic football, was killed in the February 2011 earthquake. McKenna had helped resurrect the game and, when an influx of Irish construction workers boosted player numbers, the city’s Gaelic footballers named their new club in his honour. When Auckland and Christchurch clashed in 2012, the team from Christchurch McKenna’s GAA club was the stronger, winning by three points.


It is likely that Gaelic football was played informally by Irish immigrants to New Zealand from the 19th century, but it was not organised until the mid-20th century. In 1949 the first Irish Games competition took place in Auckland and the first provincial games were played in Christchurch the following year. In 1953 the first New Zealand Gaelic Athletic Association was formed in Auckland.

The game was helped by Irish immigration, which was prompted by large construction projects. In the 1950s, the Meremere power station and the Tasman pulp and paper mill both attracted young Irishmen, who formed Gaelic football teams. Some settled in New Zealand after the projects were over, and continued to play. In the late 1960s more players were New Zealand born (in some cases the sons of those who had migrated in the 1950s). In 2013 the majority of players were still born overseas.

International competition

In 1959 the winners of the All Ireland Gaelic Football Championship (the Kerry team) visited New Zealand and played an Auckland side at Carlaw Park. Although the visitors won, the game was hard fought. There were also visits by teams from New York in the 1960s, 1970s and 1990s.

In the 1970s New Zealand joined with Australia to form the Australasian Gaelic Athletic Association. The 1980s and 1990s saw regular competition with Australia, and New Zealand teams won at both under-18 and senior level. Competition between Australia and New Zealand continued less regularly in the 2000s.

In 2012 teams from Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch competed in New Zealand’s first Gaelic football and hurling league. Each of these cities had its own Gaelic athletic association.

Beach volleyball

Beach volleyball is played by two teams of two players on an 8- by 16-metre sand court, divided by a net more than 2 metres high. Points are scored when the ball, hit by hand over the net, lands outside the court or cannot be returned to the opposing team in three hits or less. The difficulties of playing in sun and on sand, along with the potential effects of wind on the ball, make beach volleyball a sometimes challenging sport.


A Sport and Recreation New Zealand survey in 2009 found that 2.5% of New Zealanders played outdoor volleyball, which includes beach volleyball. Beach volleyball is also a popular spectator sport.

Bikini or not?

In 2010 top New Zealand player Anna Scarlett told reporters, ‘People always ask about the bikini. At the end of the day we play in a sports top and the bottoms you get to choose. If you choose to play in one that looks like a g-string, it's the player’s choice, they haven't been forced to. Bikini bottoms are the most comfortable thing to play in so I don't know how you get around that in terms of image.’1

International competition

Beach volleyball has been an Olympic sport since 1996, when New Zealand brothers Reid and Glen Hamilton competed. In 2012 New Zealand players Kirk Pitman and Jason Lochhead ranked 30th in the world, while New Zealand coach Craig Seuseu trained the third-ranked German women’s team.. Beach volleyball was Volleyball New Zealand’s high performance focus, and brothers Sam and Ben O'Dea won bronze at the 2018 Commonwealth Games.

From the 1990s New Zealand hosted a professional summer competition that attracted international teams. A dispute between Volleyball New Zealand and organisers, as well as loss of sponsorship in 2010 (when the Rugby World Cup directed support away from some other sporting codes), reduced but did not stop the competition, which was taken over by regional associations.


Although beach volleyball was not recognised by the International Federation of Volleyball Associations as part of the sport until 1986, it was being played in New Zealand in the 1970s. Volleyball New Zealand is the national association representing beach volleyball, as well as the indoor version of the sport.

Beach volleyball was, and remains, strongest in the north of the North Island, where the milder weather encourages play. Because of the quality of its sand and its level beaches, Mt Maunganui is sometimes called the home of beach volleyball in New Zealand.



Croquet comes in several forms, including association, golf and garden croquet. In 2013 association croquet was the form most often played in New Zealand’s 134 clubs. It is a singles or doubles game in which each side hits two balls in a set sequence through 6 hoops and then against a peg in the middle of the lawn. The winner is the player or pair that completes the sequence first or is ahead when time is called. A skilful player can set up a series of shots that are taken as one turn, getting his or her balls through several or even all hoops. Golf croquet allows each player or team only a single shot before the other side has a turn.


Croquet was one of the first sports to be played by women and men together, and although there have previously been single-sex clubs in New Zealand, all are now mixed. It is also a game played by a very wide age range: children can start before they turn 10, while older people continue to play into their 90s. Tony Stephens was 16 when he won the New Zealand Open in 1960, and competed in the same event in 2013.

Croquet lovers

In 1925 the English publication Croquet commented with some surprise on the number of New Zealanders playing the game. Despite having barely one-thirtieth of the population of England, New Zealand had at least 800 more players – about 2,500, all but a few dozen of whom were women.


A national championship was first held in 1913. The centennial competition in 2013 was attended by players from eight countries, and was won by Toby Garrison (ranked ninth in the world). Garrison was one of several New Zealanders with world rankings at the same time, including Aaron Westerby (sixth), and the 2012 world women’s champion, Jenny Clarke (eighth). Gisborne’s Joe Hogan was the first world champion in 1989. Premier international teams competition the MacRobertson Shield was first won by New Zealand in 1951.


Croquet was brought to colonial New Zealand from England, where it was strongly associated with the well-to-do. The first New Zealand club was formed in Christchurch in 1866, but croquet’s basic requirement – a large, flat, manicured lawn – made it impractical for many people.

By the early 20th century croquet was flourishing. In the Wellington region, for example, there were 22 clubs. The New Zealand Croquet Council was formed in 1920. Some clubs shared facilities with bowling and lawn tennis clubs, as all three sports required a large flat lawn, and in some areas local councils provided grounds. The range of people playing the game has continued to expand. When an English team visited New Zealand in the 1950s they commented on the high level of participation by working-class people. Interest in the game declined in the second half of the 20th century, but began to rise again in the 1990s.

Dragon boat racing

Ten- to 12-metre long dragon boats – named after the decorative dragon head and tail attached to prow and stern when racing – sprint over a short course, typically 500 metres. They carry a crew of 22. In the bow of the boat sits a drummer, who sets the rhythm and pace of the paddling. Despite the name, in New Zealand the drummer often uses a loud voice or visual cues rather than a drum. A person called the sweep stands in the stern and steers the boat with a long-handled single oar. The 20 paddlers sit in pairs on 10 rows of seats.

The challenge lies in synchronising the paddling of the crew, whose physical size and strength may vary. The equipment needed is simple – a boat, paddles and clothes do not get cold and heavy when wet.


In 2013 there were over 3,000 paddlers in New Zealand. Dragon boating’s emphasis on working together means makes it an effective team-building exercise, and has drawn crews from businesses, councils and the defence force. The similarity between waka (canoeing) and dragon boat racing has attracted Māori teams in the northern half of the North Island. The challenge and camaraderie of dragon boating have also drawn women who have survived breast cancer to the sport. There is a strong secondary school competition.

An old sport

Many sports played in New Zealand developed in the 19th or even 20th century, but dragon boat racing is at least 1,500 years old, rooted in Chinese myth and history. Duanwu Jie, the dragon boat festival, can be traced back to the 5th and 6th centuries when the death of a poet wrongfully exiled by the emperor began to be commemorated, and even further back, to rituals performed to protect rice crops.


In 2013 the competition calendar included races in Auckland, Wellington, Rotorua, Ashburton, and Lake Pegasus, near Christchurch. Top-ranked crews include Christchurch-based Tu Meke and Auckland-based HCWS. New Zealand teams also compete internationally, at events such as the Lee Kum Kee International Dragon Boat Federation Club Crew World Championships.


Modern dragon boating began in Hong Kong in the 1970s. It was introduced to New Zealand by Olympic kayaking gold medallists Ian Ferguson and Paul McDonald in 1984.


Orienteering, sometimes called map sport, involves running (or walking), biking or skiing while navigating with the aid of a map, and sometimes a compass, through a set course. Courses can be almost anywhere, and those used for competition include control points that have to be visited in a set order. The person who reaches all of the control points in the fastest time is the winner. But speed alone will not do it – choosing the best route between control points is crucial.

In 2013 there were 17 New Zealand orienteering clubs, with 2,000 members and 24 permanent orienteering courses. At the 2012 world championships in Slovakia, Matt Ogden won New Zealand’s first orienteering gold medal, and the junior team of which he was a member lifted their ranking to ninth overall (the highest New Zealand ranking ever). The Oceania Carnival, which included several World Cup events, was held in New Zealand in 2013. Lizzie Ingham, who is ranked 25th in the world, came third in the world cup sprint final.


It is believed that the first orienteering event in New Zealand was organised in 1952 by the Otago University Tramping Club. That same year, students at Mt Roskill Grammar School in Auckland began orienteering on a regular basis. The sport was a natural fit for harrier (running) clubs, some of which added orienteering to their activities in the 1950s and 1960s. The first official competitions were held in Auckland and Wellington in 1969, and in 1972 the first dedicated club, the Pupuke Orienteers, was formed on Auckland’s North Shore. The New Zealand Orienteering Federation (NZOF) was set up in 1973.

All together

The challenge of choosing the best route and getting over it fast attracts a wide range of people, and all of them can be found difference courses on the same map at the same time. Young, old, male, female, elite and recreational orienteers compete together, enjoying the sport sometimes known as ‘cunning running’.

Mountain bike orienteering, rogaining and ski orienteering

Mountain bike orienteering arrived in New Zealand in the 1990s, with the first national championship held in 2000. There has been a regular Australia-New Zealand challenge (often won by New Zealand), and New Zealand riders go to the world championships.

Rogaining is long-distance, endurance orienteering done in teams. The sport was invented in Australia in the early 1980s, with the first New Zealand rogaine held by Orienteering Hutt Valley in 1991. Since then orienteering clubs across the country have run rogaines (which can last up to 24 hours), including the world championship in 2000. Both NZOF and the New Zealand Rogaining Association (set up in 2001) help organise and run rogaines.

Orienteering on skis (also known as ski-o), is popular in Scandinavia and Europe. Ski orienteering was first tried in New Zealand at the Waiorau skifield near Wānaka in 1991. In the 2000s the activity was run by the Dunedin and Southland orienteering clubs at Waiorau.

How to cite this page: Megan Cook, 'Minor outdoor sports', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Megan Cook, i tāngia i te 5 o Hepetema 2013