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Rugby has been seen as New Zealand’s national game since the early 20th century – more because of the numbers who watch it than the numbers who play.
The first known football match in New Zealand under rugby rules was played in Whanganui in 1869. Charles Monro organised a match in Nelson in 1870 after playing at school in London. Other old boys of English public schools persuaded clubs to adopt rugby rules. Inter-regional matches were played, and the game spread into rural areas. By the mid-1890s there were over 5,000 players – although rugby was seen as violent. The New Zealand Rugby Football Union (NZRFU) was set up in 1892.
Māori played rugby from its early days. The Native team, which was mostly Māori, toured Australia and Britain in 1888–89.
In 1905–6 the All Blacks toured Britain, winning 31 of their 32 games. They became known as the Originals.
Club, provincial and Super rugby
Rugby clubs have always been central to the game. At its peak, club rugby drew large crowds.
Provinces have competed for the Ranfurly Shield since 1904, and the National Provincial Championship began in 1976.
Super Rugby has been played since professional rugby began in 1996. New Zealand, Australian, South African, Argentinian and Japanese teams have taken part.
New Zealand’s main opponents have been Australia, the ‘home’ countries (of Britain), France and South Africa. By 2022 the All Blacks’ success rate in all international matches was 77%.
The Rugby World Cup began in 1987, when it was won by the All Blacks. They were world champtions again in 2011 and 2015.
Amateurs and professionals
Amateurism was a founding principle of rugby. Players who switched to rugby league (which was professional) were banned, and some All Blacks were accused of earning money from the sport – even for writing a book. Professionalism was accepted by rugby’s ruling body in 1995.
Women’s and Māori rugby
Women’s games were rare until the late 20th century. Since the 1990s the national women’s team, the Black Ferns, have won six world cups.
Māori involvement has always been strong. National Māori teams (now called the Māori All Blacks) have been selected since 1910.
Other forms of rugby
Sevens rugby has teams of seven who play seven-minute halves. The Wellington Sevens was a popular annual tournament in the 2000s. In 2016 sevens rugby made its debut as an Olympic sport at the Rio games. In touch, tackling is replaced by touching. Touch teams often include both men and women.