Skip to main content
Logo: Te Ara - The Online Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Print all pages now.

Rugby league

by John Coffey

A physically demanding, fast-moving game, rugby league developed out of rugby union in northern England in the 1890s. In the 2000s many New Zealand players crossed the Tasman to play for Australian league teams.

Rugby league overview

Rugby league, a hard, physically demanding game, is widely acknowledged as fast-moving and exciting to play and watch.

Rugby league ranks behind rugby union in terms of player numbers (in 2006–7, 2.1% of New Zealand’s population played league, compared with 5.7% for rugby union). In the 2000s it was still a niche sport in terms of geographic spread and community commitment. Its stronghold was the upper North Island, from Waikato and the Bay of Plenty northwards. Outside that area, domestic competition was patchy. There were competitions in Taranaki, Manawatū, Hawke’s Bay, Gisborne, Wellington, the West Coast, Canterbury, Southland and Otago. Within each area there were towns without a league team.

NRL competition

Many New Zealand players and a New Zealand-based team (the Warriors) play in the Australian National Rugby League (NRL) competition. The Warriors’ success in reaching NRL grand finals in 2002 and 2011 increased the game’s popularity in New Zealand. Both matches drew more than 80,000 spectators to the ANZ Stadium in Sydney. The 2011 grand final – held during the Rugby World Cup, which was in New Zealand that year – attracted a New Zealand television audience of 692,000 in addition to the 3.3 million who tuned in across the Tasman.

International position

Rugby league is played in Britain, Australia, France, Papua New Guinea and some Pacific nations. In the first decade of the 21st century New Zealand produced a series of tournament triumphs. The 2005 Tri-Nations victory in England was a significant breakthrough. New Zealand won the 2008 World Cup final 34–20 over Australia at Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium. Two years later New Zealand’s national men’s team, the Kiwis, snatched the Four Nations Trophy from the Kangaroos (the Australian national team) at the same venue, giving New Zealand simultaneous possession of the two most prized pieces of silverware – a rare event in a sport dominated by Australia in recent decades.

Record makers

Ruben Wiki, New Zealand’s 2005 captain, became the first player from any nation to register 50 test appearances. Other New Zealand test records include most consecutive appearances, Gary Freeman (37); most points, Matthew Ridge (168); most tries, Nigel Vagana (19); and most goals, Matthew Ridge (73). Records in all matches for New Zealand include most appearances, Jock Butterfield (99); most points, Des White (467); most tries, Phillip Orchard (40); and most goals, Des White (223).

The Kiwi Ferns – the New Zealand women’s team – dominated the international scene, winning the women’s 2000, 2005 and 2008 World Cup tournaments. New Zealand’s claim to first international ranking was demonstrated in 2005 at North Harbour, Auckland, when the Kiwi Ferns beat Britain in one semi-final and the New Zealand Māori team beat Australia in the other.

How the game is played

Two teams of 13 compete for 80 minutes, attempting to carry and kick an oval ball over the opponent’s goal line. To prevent this, members of the opposing team attempt to gain possession by tackling the player with the ball. Once the ball is placed by hand on the ground over the line – a try, worth four points – the successful team gets a free kick at goal – a conversion – to gain another two points.

Although rugby league and rugby union are related games, there are a number of differences between the two. A league team has 13 players and a union team 15. Ways of restarting play (after the ball is kicked into touch, for example) are different. League games do not include the rucks typical of rugby union, and scrums are used as a way of restarting play. Ball handling also differs. After a tackle is made, for instance, a league game starts again with a move called ‘play the ball’: the tackled player puts the ball on the ground and rolls it backward with his or her boot. Once the ball is picked up by a teammate (known as ‘the dummy half’), play resumes. The team in possession of the ball automatically loses it on the sixth tackle. The differences make rugby league a faster game, and many changes were introduced for that purpose.

As in most countries, rugby league is a winter sport in New Zealand, with the season running from late March to early October. Britain is an exception – the introduction of Super League in 1996 was accompanied by a switch to a summer season at the elite level.

Origins of rugby league

Birth in Britain

In 1895, after years of disenchantment with the London-based Rugby Football Union (RFU), 22 of the most powerful Yorkshire and Lancashire clubs broke away to form the Northern Union. It was not just a geographical split. Most northern players were working-class men whose requests for ‘broken time’ payments to compensate them for time off work when playing their sport were rejected by the wealthy southerners who held the power. The rebel clubs, players and officials were banned for life by the RFU.

Streamlining the game

After initially retaining rugby union’s playing laws, the Northern Union systematically streamlined its game to make it more attractive for spectators. Lineouts were abolished, all goals counted as two points, and the first Challenge Cup knock-out competition was played in 1897. Part-time professionalism was permitted from 1898 and an early form of play-the-ball was introduced in 1906. The biggest change of all also occurred that year when team numbers were reduced from 15 to 13.

From black to gold

Eight All Blacks toured Britain with the 1907–8 All Golds. George Smith, Duncan McGregor, William Johnston and Bill Mackrell were 1905 All Black Originals and very much aware of the great upheaval which had split English rugby a decade earlier. Hubert Turtill, Edgar Wrigley, Tom Cross and Eric Watkins had also represented New Zealand at rugby union. Some other All Blacks of that era, including Albert Asher and George Gillett, changed codes later.

New Zealand and Australia

Newspaper reports of big crowds at Northern Union matches attracted the attention of Albert Henry Baskerville, a Wellington postal worker, rugby player and author, in 1907. Baskerville set about assembling a strong New Zealand team to play the clubs and counties of northern England, which had been banned from meeting the 1905 All Blacks. He found an ally in great All Blacks wing and track athlete George Smith, who in turn contacted people of similar mind in Sydney. In both Australia and New Zealand the affluent ruling rugby bodies were accused by players of being too miserly in matters of touring allowances and compensation for injuries.

All Golds

Baskerville’s pioneers were cynically dubbed the All Golds by newspapers at the start of their 10-month, 49-game odyssey. The name referred to the players being paid, but it came to hold a proud place in New Zealand sporting folklore. The team played rugby-union games in Sydney and Ceylon (later Sri Lanka) before adopting Northern Union rules in Britain, where they triumphed 2–1 in a historic first test series. Five All Golds were signed by British clubs and stayed in Britain, but their teammates became rugby league’s first world champions with a 2–1 test-series win in Australia on the way home.

Team of the century

In 2007, to mark the centenary of the original All Golds tour, a team of the century was named as follows: fullback Des White (a member of New Zealand’s national team, the Kiwis, from 1950 to 1956), wing Tom Hadfield (1956–61), centre Tommy Baxter (1949–56), centre Roger Bailey (1961–70), wing Phillip Orchard (1969–75), stand-off half George Menzies (1951–61), scrum-half Stacey Jones (1995–2006), prop Cliff Johnson (captain, 1950–60), hooker Jock Butterfield (1954–63), prop Ruben Wiki (1994–2006), second-row Mark Graham (1977–88), second-row Ron Ackland (1954–63) and loose forward Mel Cooke (1959–64).

Tragically, 25-year-old Baskerville died of pneumonia in Brisbane only a few days after scoring a try in the inaugural trans-Tasman test match in Sydney. Such were Baskerville’s organisational skills that the New Zealand winter sports scene might be very different had he survived to establish rugby league in his homeland – and even further afield. He had already spoken to some of the All Golds about mounting a tour of the United States.

Arrival in New Zealand

The first match on New Zealand soil was held at Athletic Park, Wellington, on 13 June 1908 between the returning All Golds and other recruits to benefit Albert Baskerville’s widowed mother. Over the next few months provincial fixtures were staged among Auckland, Wellington and Taranaki and between Otago and Southland. The first match in Auckland, against Wellington, was at Victoria Park on 22 August 1908.

Renowned All Blacks wing Albert Asher was a pivotal figure in Māori teams which toured Australia in 1908 and 1909. Another privately organised New Zealand team also crossed the Tasman in 1909.

Provincial rugby league

The Auckland Rugby League was formed in July 1909, and North Shore played City as the forerunner to an inter-club competition that started in 1910. By this time, league was also being played in Taranaki, Rotorua, Hawke’s Bay, Nelson, Marlborough and Southland.

The New Zealand Rugby League came into being in 1910 to host the first British touring team. Those Lions played only in Auckland (three games) and Rotorua and did little towards expanding the fledgling sport. However, it flourished in Auckland – with champion centre Karl Ifwersen the stellar attraction – to such a degree that in 1917 the Auckland Rugby Union was permitted to make local rule changes to combat the threat.

Union opposition

Spreading what was seen as a ‘rebel’ code in the face of formidable rugby union opposition proved tough going outside Auckland. The union had unbreakable links with government agencies, local bodies which controlled playing fields, school authorities and newspapers. Obtaining suitable venues for major matches and access to schools haunted rugby league and stunted its growth for decades.

Growth was also affected by the First World War. Although leagues were set up in Canterbury and Wellington in 1912, the war forced several provinces into recess. Post-war recovery was very slow and, Auckland apart, all momentum had been lost.

Clash of codes

There was drama in Napier before New South Wales played Hawke’s Bay in 1912. Rugby union officials dismantled a temporary grandstand at the recreation ground on the eve of the match, having unsuccessfully attempted to charge a considerable fee for its use. But their rugby league counterparts, assisted by local residents and members of the visiting team, worked overnight to rebuild the structure in time for kick-off.

Grounds shut

The gates of New Zealand’s main sporting stadiums were long shut to rugby league. After the inaugural game in 1908, it was 82 years before rugby league returned to Athletic Park in Wellington. Lancaster Park authorities in Christchurch used the payment of rugby league players as a reason to refuse admittance to the game between 1921 and 1996, while turning a blind eye to handsomely paid English cricketers gracing their turf.

Auckland’s Eden Park hosted provincial matches in 1919 but nothing more until the 1988 World Cup final. The Carisbrook ground in Dunedin was never available.

Carlaw Park

Situated in a hollow below Parnell Rise in Auckland, and named after New Zealand Rugby League president James Carlaw, Carlaw Park was heralded as rugby league’s field of dreams when it was developed from a market garden and opened on 25 June 1921. By the early 1990s Carlaw Park had been overtaken by bigger and more comfortable Auckland venues such as Mount Smart Stadium and North Harbour Stadium. The last games were played there in 2002.

Won’t let the girls play

It is not clear when women started playing rugby league, but by the 1920s a few teams were up and running. They weren’t encouraged. An attempt by an Auckland women’s rugby league team to play at Carlaw Park (under amended rules with the presence of three ‘matrons’, two of them nurses) was firmly rejected by league officials.

Ill-fated tour

With Carlaw Park established and drawing big crowds in Auckland, James Carlaw planned to secure playing fields throughout the country from the proceeds of the 1926–27 New Zealand tour of Britain. The venture was a financial and public-relations nightmare. The New Zealand Rugby Union objected to the rival code calling its players All Blacks, and Australian officials argued that an Australasian team should have been selected. Conflict between the coach and players resulted in most of the forwards being cut adrift from the team.

The fallout from the 1926–27 tour included a distraught Carlaw resigning his presidency.

Rugby league players

Māori and Pacific involvement

Māori have been strongly involved in rugby league since its inception in New Zealand. Brothers Dick and Billy Wynyard joined the All Golds, and Māori teams toured Australia in 1908 and 1909. Among the prime movers of the Māori tours were record-breaking All Blacks wing Albert Asher and his brother Ernie, who served as secretary of the Māori Rugby League for more than 60 years. Māori players have starred in all of the most successful national teams.

Recruitment drive

The remarkable Steve Wātene spent the 1935–36 summer visiting many North Island Māori settlements to recruit players for his Manukau club. Such was Wātene’s mana that prominent footballers travelled to Auckland from as far away as Otago. Wātene then persuaded Auckland Rugby League officials to promote Manukau into the top grade. In 1936 the club won the Fox Memorial championship and the Roope Rooster knockout competition, both for the first time.

Puti Tīpene (Steve) Wātene, later a member of Parliament, was the first Māori captain of a national league team, against England in 1936 and Australia in 1937. Wātene also led the New Zealand Māori team to a stunning 16–5 victory over the 1937 Kangaroos. That side was coached by former Kiwis forward Jim Rukutai and managed by Ernie Asher, and featured famed All Blacks fullback and goalkicker George Nēpia.

Alf Mitchell, who was born in Samoa to a Samoan mother and English father, became the first Pacific Islander to represent New Zealand in rugby league, against Australia in 1935. Four years later his brother, George, was chosen to tour Britain with the Kiwis. From the mid-1950s there was a growing Pacific influence on the game, as typified by the Sorensen family which produced four internationals over two generations. From the late 20th century players with a Pacific heritage, whether born in the islands or in Australia or New Zealand, increasingly dominated professional league in Australia.

Family game

Families have always featured prominently in rugby league. In the first century of international football no fewer than 33 sets of brothers wore the Kiwis jersey. Two families provided three brothers to national teams. Ted, Walter and Wilfred Brimble, who had a Bantu (African) mother and an English father, played in the 1930s. The trio of Ropati brothers, Joe, Tea and Iva, played in the 1980s and 1990s. There have also been nine father-and-son combinations.

Fluctuating figures

Whereas entire clubs changed codes in Britain and Australia, in New Zealand initial recruitment from rugby union was more on an individual basis. Some payments were made but seldom covered more than travel expenses. Most players switched codes because they liked the more open nature of the new game, were disillusioned with rugby union or were lured by the chance to represent their country. League’s physicality appealed particularly to working-class sportspeople, hence the strong outposts in mining areas such as Huntly and the West Coast of the South Island.

The rugby union players who truly ‘went professional’ were those who signed for British clubs before and after the Second World War. An international transfer ban prevented rugby league players being poached, but their rugby union counterparts were fair game. That changed in the 1960s and 1970s, when court cases taken by players successfully challenged the right of clubs and national rugby-league organisations to restrict transfers. A trickle of New Zealanders to Australian and British clubs from the 1970s became a veritable torrent in the 21st century. Each year scores of young New Zealanders sought fame and fortune in the Australian junior and senior leagues. Many were recruited in their mid-teens by Australian clubs and attended academies across the Tasman.

The Warriors

New Zealand’s most decorated professional rugby-league player, Dean Bell, returned to his home town to captain his country’s first professional team, the Auckland Warriors, in the 1995 Australian Winfield Cup competition. Bell had shared in seven consecutive Challenge Cup triumphs with famous British club Wigan. It was Bell’s farewell season but the advent of the Warriors permanently changed the face of the game in New Zealand.


Television markedly increased the popularity and general knowledge of rugby league among the New Zealand public from the 1980s. With the introduction of the Auckland Warriors to the Australian Winfield Cup competition in 1995, there was a surge in player numbers in New Zealand. Player numbers increased, probably from about 23,000 in the mid-1980s to as many as 40,000 a decade later. There was a major slump after that. Since the NZRL was restructured in 2009 there have been sharp increases, from 15,900 players that season to 24,200 in 2010 and just over 33,500 in 2011.

Domestic competition

Rugby League Cup

The oldest and most prized trophy is the Rugby League Cup, known as the Northern Union Cup until 1969. It was presented to the New Zealand Rugby League (NZRL) by the managers of the first British touring team in 1910, to be contested on a challenge basis. The cup was originally awarded to Auckland, which held it until 1922.

Interest has periodically waned, especially after provincial football was superseded by national franchise competitions. During the period of the Bartercard Cup (2000–7) the Rugby League Cup was in turn held by minor leagues Coastline, Tasman, Otago, Gisborne and Hawke’s Bay.

District leagues

The game’s foundation in New Zealand has firmly been at amateur club level within the district leagues. Some took decades to establish themselves. In the mid-1970s, for example, the Canterbury rugby league helped set up clubs in Marlborough, Southland rugby league was re-established and new clubs were set up in Otago.

Various national inter-club and inter-provincial competitions appeared and disappeared. Teams representing the North Island and South Island met for the first time at Auckland’s Carlaw Park in 1925, when North won 27–5. South first won in 1929 but conceded home-ground advantage to Auckland-dominant North, with Carlaw Park hosting the first 23 matches through to 1954. In all, 33 games were played, with North winning 24, South eight and the sole draw occurring in 1930. The series was discontinued after 1965.

The two most ambitious attempts to set up national semi-professional competitions were the Lion Red Cup from 1994 to 1996 and the Bartercard Cup from 2000 to 2007. But there has never been a permanent solution to the imbalance between all-powerful Auckland and the smaller leagues, although West Coast (just after the Second World War), Canterbury (in the early 1990s) and Central Districts (during the inter-districts era of the early 1980s) have enjoyed periodic superiority over big brother.

Kiwis in Oz

The larger, richer Australian competition draws New Zealand players across the Tasman. There are so many Kiwis playing that Australian competition is seen sometimes as an extension of the local game, at other times as an international off-shoot that sucks life out of it.

Local league in the 2000s

In 2010 the restructured NZRL introduced seven zones – Northern, Auckland, Counties–Manukau, Waicoa Bay (Waikato, Coastline and Bay of Plenty), Central, Wellington and South Island. They competed for the Albert Baskerville Trophy (premier teams, made up of elite players from the club competition), Mark Graham Cup (16- and 17-year-olds) and Nathan Cayless Cup (players aged 15 and under). Each competition consisted of a six-match round-robin leading up to a final. Both Graham (during the 1980s) and Cayless (who hoisted the World Cup in 2008) were distinguished Kiwis captains.

International competition

International supremacy in the 20th century was generally enjoyed by the nation with the most professional domestic competition. The British held the Ashes (a three-game series first played in 1908) against Australia for 30 years until 1950. Australia’s dominance reached a peak from 1978 until 2005, when it did not lose a tournament or test series. That year Australia was beaten 24–0 by New Zealand in the final of the 2005 Tri-Nations tournament at Elland Road, Leeds.

World cups

In 1954 rugby league became the second sport, after association football, to stage a World Cup. France promoted the concept, hosted the event and narrowly lost to Britain in the final. Britain and Australia shared the first 12 tournaments under various formats. New Zealand finally triumphed on the 13th attempt, eliminating England in a semi-final and beating Australia in the 2008 final at Brisbane.

Fighting back

In the first half of the 20th century, Kiwi players were closer to amateur than those in Australia or Britain, but they remained competitive. However, New South Wales and Queensland officials had long regarded New Zealand as akin to a third state team and declined all requests to stage test matches on Australian soil between 1909 and 1948. The eight New Zealand teams that toured Australia in that period had to be content to play state, city and country opponents. Nor did the Australians send a full national team to New Zealand between 1919 and 1935.

However, the British always included a New Zealand leg on their four-yearly Australasian tours. They suffered their first loss in New Zealand to Auckland in 1920 and were beaten, two tests to one, in the 1924 test series. In 1946 West Coast’s 17–8 victory at Greymouth was the heaviest defeat of that Lions team’s entire Australasian tour.

Post-Second World War success

When Australia did resume playing the Kiwis after the Second World War, they were in for a shock. Two-match series were drawn in Australia in 1948 and New Zealand in 1949 before the Kiwis triumphed in three-test series away in 1952 and at home in 1953. The Ashes-winning 1962 Lions were twice beaten by 19-point margins at Carlaw Park during a period (1960–64) in which New Zealand was awarded the Courtney Trophy as the best-performing rugby league nation.

The 1971 Grand Slam Kiwis beat Australia 24–3 in Auckland as a prelude to winning away series against Great Britain and France. There were memorable test victories over Australia and a series whitewash of Britain in the mid-1980s. In nine tests against Britain from 1996 to 2002, the Kiwis won seven and drew the other two. A New Zealand women’s team first toured Australia in 1995. Dubbed the Kiwi Ferns since 1998, the team went on to become world champions in the 2000s.

  1. Hera Cook, interview with Les and Laurel Olsen, Auckland, 2011. Back

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: John Coffey, 'Rugby league', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 July 2024)

He kōrero nā John Coffey, i tāngia i te 5 o Hepetema 2013