The bedrock of rugby has always been the clubs – they are where players start and, even in the professional era, where most finish. Clubs existed before provincial unions and the national union. Club rugby is the base of the New Zealand rugby pyramid, with the provincial game in the middle and the All Blacks at the apex.
Especially in country areas, clubs were a focal point of a community and rugby clubrooms the centre of social interaction. Enduring social networks were formed in clubs based on schools and universities, and in the Marist clubs with a common religious background.
At its peak, club rugby drew bigger crowds than some first-class matches attract in the 2020s. In the 1950s crowds of 10,000 for games between Poneke and Petone in Wellington or Southern and University in Dunedin were not unusual. Interest in club rugby then declined, especially in the 1980s and 1990s, because of changed social habits such as all-day Saturday shopping and early-season representative rugby. Clubs found their best players unavailable because of increasing demands by representative team coaches. In the 2010s some clubs reported renewed interest.
Provincial governments were abolished in 1876, but the legacy of the provinces lived on in rugby. Within a few years of rugby’s beginnings, players sought a provincial stage on which to show their wares.
The first quasi-interprovincial match occurred when combined Auckland clubs (then including Hamilton) played combined Dunedin clubs in Dunedin in 1875. Canterbury became the first provincial union in 1879, followed by Wellington (1879) and Otago (1881), beginning a network of provincial unions.
Before 1976 rugby provinces worked out among themselves whom they would and could play, in addition to annual fixtures with neighbours. The annual fixtures meeting in Wellington, which determined the year’s playing calendar and was held on the day before the NZRFU’s annual general meeting, was fondly known as the ‘wool sale’.
While the number of provinces fluctuated, the basic structure was unchanged until rugby’s amateur status was abolished in 1995 and the made-for-television Super Rugby was created. The effectiveness of the system was envied in other countries. There was also a simple administrative model: clubs provided provincial administrators and provinces provided national administrators. Under the governance structure, the provinces ‘owned’ the New Zealand Rugby Football Union (NZRFU).
Before the National Provincial Championship (NPC) began in 1976, provincial unions played merely for honour and glory, supplemented by occasional matches against touring teams. There were also regional groups with their own trophies, such as:
- the Coronation Shield (Auckland, Bay of Plenty, Counties, King Country, Northland, Thames Valley and Waikato)
- the Seddon Shield (Buller, Marlborough, Nelson in various guises and West Coast)
- the Hanan Shield (Mid-Canterbury, North Otago and South Canterbury).
Battle of Solway
A remarkable Ranfurly Shield match was played on 9 July 1927 at Masterton. It was a rematch – Wairarapa had defeated Hawke’s Bay 36 days previously. Three McKenzie brothers were involved: Norman, the Hawke’s Bay coach, Ted, the Wairarapa coach, and Bert, the referee. A player was sent off from each side, the game was stopped twice when drunken spectators encroached on the ground, and afterwards Wairarapa protested that Wattie Barclay had lived in the Bay for only two weeks, not the required three. Hawke’s Bay won 21–10, but the NZRFU reversed the result. It made little difference. Wairarapa was defeated by Manawhenua in the next challenge.
Nationally the most important trophy was the Ranfurly Shield. Presented by the governor, Lord Ranfurly, in 1902 to Auckland as the province with the best record, the shield was held on a challenge basis. The first challenge from Wellington in August 1904 was successful. Since then Ranfurly Shield challenges have been the occasion for some of the epic contests of New Zealand rugby, and a great source of revenue for unions that hold the shield for some time. Since 1976 all home games the holder plays in the regular season of the National Provincial Competition (NPC) or its successor competitions are automatically challenges.
Auckland (with 158 wins, and five draws as the holder) and Canterbury (142 wins, six draws as holder) were by far the most successful up to 2016. These two provinces have had the longest tenures of the shield – Auckland with 61 defences from 1985 to 1993 and 25 defences from 1960 to 1963, and Canterbury with 25 defences from 1982 to 1985. Some smaller unions have also had noteworthy tenures – such as Hawke’s Bay (featuring the Brownlie brothers and George Nēpia) with 24 defences, 1922–27, and again in 1966–69 with 21 defences; and Waikato with 21 defences, 1997–2000.