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Rugby union

by Ron Palenski

Regarded as New Zealand’s national game from the early 20th century, when the All Blacks swept triumphantly through Britain, rugby remains hugely popular. Māori participation has always been high, and the national women’s team has won six world cups.

Rules, participation and audience

Rugby union has been regarded as New Zealand’s national game since the early 20th century.

How the game is played

Rugby is played between two teams of 15 players over two halves of 40 minutes. The aim is to win by scoring more points than the opponent. Points are scored by touching the ball down over the opposition’s try-line (worth five points), place-kicking the ball over the crossbar of the goal posts after a try (a conversion – two points) or when the other team is penalised (three points), and drop-kicking the ball over the crossbar in general play (three points).

Players may pass the ball backwards to other players, but not forwards. When the ball goes out of the field, it is thrown back into a line-out. When other infringements of the rules occur there is a scrum (when the eight forwards pack down against each other) or a penalty. There are seven backs, who are normally fast and elusive runners, to carry the ball.


In 2015 more than 150,000 New Zealanders were registered to play rugby. Of these more than half were children aged 12 or under, and less than a fifth were senior players (those not in junior club or school teams). There were more than 12,000 coaches and nearly 2,000 referees.

A 2013/14 survey suggested that among all sport and recreational activities, rugby ranked 26th, with 3.6% of the population aged 16 and over participating in the game at least once in the previous 12 months. Men’s participation rate was 6.8%; women’s was under 2%. 

There was a distinctive involvement by particular ethnic groups. While about 3% of New Zealand Europeans aged 16 and over played rugby, about 10% of Māori and 13.5% of Pacific peoples did so. More than 50% of rugby players were Pacific or Māori people.


Rugby union’s significant position in New Zealand culture rests less on the numbers playing than on the numbers watching. Most club and school games attract few spectators. However inter-provincial contests, Super Rugby games played by professional players and international matches involving the national team, the All Blacks, attract many spectators and extensive media coverage.

In 2011 the Rugby World Cup matches in New Zealand attracted an average of over 30,000 spectators – although many of these were overseas visitors. Test matches in New Zealand normally attract over that number. However Super 15 games in 2011 drew on average less than 10,000, and the average gate at the provincial ITM Cup final from 2007 to 2010 was just under 15,000. In Wellington, an average of 3,816 people attended each ITM Cup game in 2011.

Television viewing is substantial. More than 2 million New Zealanders watched the World Cup final in October 2011 – just over half of all New Zealanders above the age of five. Each weekend during the 2015 rugby season, Sky Television (to which about half of all households subscribed) had coverage of six or seven Super Rugby games, five special rugby programmes, numerous replays and a dedicated rugby channel.

In September 2010, research suggested that 64% of New Zealanders were interested in rugby, compared with 45% for football and 44% for netball. Rugby has more television coverage and more press columns, and is the subject of more tearoom banter than any other sport.

History of rugby

Rugby union has a long history. Some claim that a form of football can be traced back to pre-imperial China about 2,500 years ago. In various forms, football is known to have existed in ancient Greece and moved west across Europe with the Romans.

Varied forms of football developed in British villages, but it was the English public school that formalised the rules of these games. Boys wanted to test themselves against others, but in order to do so, they needed to play the same game. Headmasters and teachers came to believe that football games would provide training in physical strength, discipline and manliness. Rules were necessary to ensure the rough games were played in a restrained, civilised manner.

Not the founder

At Rugby School a plaque reads: ‘This stone commemorates the exploit of William Webb Ellis who with a fine disregard for the rules of football as played in his time first took the ball in his arms and ran with it thus originating the distinctive feature of the rugby game A.D. 1823.’ However, there is little evidence of this, and the claim did not surface until more than 50 years later. It is thought that Rugby School advanced the story in the 1890s to establish ownership of the origins of the game.

Public school origins

Eventually two distinct games of football emerged: rugby, named for Rugby School in Warwickshire where it was played, and the association game (soccer). This was named for the Football Association, formed by old boys of schools such as Eton and Westminster.

Initially the most distinctive difference between the two games was that in association football goals were scored by kicking the ball under a bar, and in rugby by kicking it over the bar. (A try was simply an opportunity to ‘try’ for a kick over the goal.) Eventually the greatest difference came to be how the ball was propelled: rugby rules allowed for handling and running with the ball and association only allowed kicking and heading. Under rugby rules, the ball could only be passed backwards, but in the association game, it could be passed in any direction.

New Zealand origins

Several matches under rugby rules were played in Whanganui in 1869. Reports of rugby being played in New Zealand earlier than this, especially in Wellington, have not been verified.

Meanwhile, a young New Zealander, Charles John Monro, had been sent to Christ’s College in north London for his education in the late 1860s, and played rugby there. At that time football in New Zealand was a mixture of Australian rules and various old English games.

When Monro returned home in 1870 he persuaded the Nelson club, formed two years before, that rugby was better than the hybrid football it was playing. Monro and a club founder, Robert Tennent, suggested to Nelson College’s headmaster, Frank Simmons, a Rugby School old boy, that the school switch to the rugby rules. Simmons agreed, and a game of rugby between College and Town was played on 14 May 1870. On 12 September that year Nelson travelled to Wellington to play at Petone – the beginning of regular annual contests between the two communities. Rugby now had a foothold.


The game spreads, 1870–1892

Inter-provincial games

Old boys of English public schools persuaded football clubs to adopt the rugby rules in Auckland, South Canterbury and Otago, and they were important in spreading rugby in the 1870s. They had the time and money to travel to other centres to play the game, and these inter-regional rugby games were crucial in spreading the gospel and attaching local pride to the success of the rugby team. The elite encouraged and facilitated popular attendance at these games – when Auckland played Christchurch in 1875 in Cranmer Square, there were 3,000 spectators.

Changing environment

Other factors assisted the spread of the game:

  • the improvement in transport – regular steamship services between provincial centres and then railways (the 1878 Christchurch–Dunedin line allowed annual fixtures between the two provinces)
  • the building of private grounds such as Lancaster Park and Carisbrook, which facilitated the charging of admission and a revenue stream for the game
  • the growing practice of Saturday half-holidays, which were legally recognised by the Shops and Shop-assistants Act 1894.

By the mid-1880s rugby had spread from its elite urban beginnings into rural areas (where clubs often sprang up and disappeared quickly), and into the urban working class. By the mid-1890s there were more than 5,000 players and 300 clubs.

A violent game

Despite its elite origins, rugby initially had a reputation as violent and brutal. The game at first largely consisted of a protracted struggle for possession which often degenerated into fighting. There was much swearing. Rugby thrived in the male community – hotels were usually where rugby clubs were founded – and early rugby trips were opportunities for drinking, socialising and the singing of songs.

Rough and dangerous

In the 1870s there was much condemnation of rugby. When a player was killed in a club match in 1877, the coroner stated that ‘the game of football was only worthy of savages’1. The following year the New Zealand Herald declared, ‘Bull-baiting and cock-fighting have more to commend them as recreations than the rough-and-tumble amusement yclept [called] football which our youths seem to take so much delight in.’2

In the 1870s, the rules and even the size of teams varied. The organisation of provincial unions (beginning with Canterbury and Wellington in 1879) to facilitate interprovincial contests led to the standardising of rules. Referees were given authority and the use of a whistle. Hacking (stopping a player by kicking him) was abolished.

During the 1880s point scoring was modified to reward the scoring of tries, and when the British team visited in 1888 and interpreted the rules to allow heeling out from the scrum, passing and back play were encouraged. Back play was refined by the creation of the five-eighth system of alignment in the backs – an adaptation of the British ‘stand-off’ position – and of a wing forward, in effect a second halfback, whose presence ensured rapid delivery of the ball to the backs.

New Zealand Rugby Football Union

This civilising process climaxed with the formation of the New Zealand Rugby Football Union in 1892. This was partly to help organise the increasingly complex arrangements for interprovincial matches, and to arrange international contests with the Australian colonies. It was also to enforce higher standards of discipline and a code of strict amateurism, to avoid the game being defiled by gambling and the payment of players.

Rugby and the haka

The 1884 team (which wore blue jerseys) brought rugby and the haka together. The team manager and underwriter, Samuel Sleigh, recorded in his book about the tour that ‘future teams of Maorilanders, be they footballers, cricketers or athletes, will not do amiss in endeavouring to warm the cockles of their hearts by adopting the war-cry of the 1884 team of Rugby footballers – Kea Kaha! [kia kaha – be strong]’.3

First international tour

By this time international games had already begun, with Māori playing an important part. Māori had played the game from its earliest days – the first recorded Māori player, named Wirihana, took part in a match in Whanganui in 1872. The first national team chosen from Wellington, Auckland, Canterbury and Otago in 1884 for an eight-match visit to New South Wales included two Māori – Joe Warbrick and Jack Taiaroa, who was a great drawcard.

Natives tour

Warbrick was the principal organiser of the 14-month Native tour in 1888–89, which comprised 107 matches throughout New Zealand, Australia and Great Britain (plus 11 of Australian rules). Warbrick’s intention was for the team to be made up only of Māori, but to strengthen its competitiveness he included five Pākehā. The team was known as the Natives, although in fact one player was born in Victoria and one in England. They won 78 of their rugby games, drew six and lost 23. The Natives were the first to adopt specialised forward positions – an innovation for which the 1905 New Zealand team is usually given the credit – and they were the first to wear the black jersey with a silver fern leaf on the breast.

    • Quoted in Arthur C. Swan, History of New Zealand rugby football 1870–1945: a complete and authentic history compiled under official sanction. Wellington: A. H. & A. W. Reed for the New Zealand Rugby Football Union, 1948, p. 70. Back
    • Quoted in History of New Zealand rugby football 1870–1945, p. 76. Back
    • Samuel Sleigh, ed., The New Zealand Rugby Football Annual for 1885. Dunedin: Otago Daily Times, 1885, p. 27. Back

1905–6 tour

Any lingering doubts about the place of rugby union in New Zealand were swept aside by the clamour that surrounded the All Blacks who in 1905 became the first national New Zealand rugby team to venture to the northern hemisphere.

Early international tours

This was not the first national team to leave New Zealand. The 1884 tour of New South Wales was followed by the Native team’s tour of 1888–89. The establishment of the New Zealand Rugby Football Union (NZRFU) led to tours to Australia in 1893, 1897 and 1901. The 1893 team was the first to wear the famous black jersey with the silver fern (although until 1901 the knickerbockers were white). The first official test match was against Australia at the Sydney Cricket Ground on 15 August 1903 (New Zealand won 22–3). A year later, on 13 August 1904, the first test match in New Zealand was played at Athletic Park, Wellington. New Zealand defeated Great Britain 9–3.

Naming the All Blacks

It was once believed the All Blacks acquired their nickname on the 1905–6 tour because of a Daily Mail misprint. They were supposedly described as ‘all backs’ but the printer inserted an ‘l’ and they became the All Blacks. However, it seems the name went to Britain with the team. The morning after the first game, a newspaper referred to ‘the All Blacks, as they are styled by reason of their sable [black] and unrelieved costume’.1 In fact, ‘all blacks’ first referred to the 1889 Wellington team. The first official national team of 1893 was also called the All Blacks.

All Blacks’ tour

The tour by the 1905 All Blacks, subsequently dubbed the Originals, gained unprecedented coverage in newspapers, both in New Zealand and Britain. Premier Richard Seddon, who arranged for them to have an ‘American picnic’ on the way home as a reward, met their boat on arrival in Auckland in March 1906, and told them their names would live on in the history of football. Some players’ names do indeed live on – New Zealand and France play for a cup named for the captain, David Gallaher.

The tour was seen as a triumphal march marred only by their one loss, 3–0 to Wales. Embedded in rugby lore is the contention that Bob Deans scored a try against Wales but was pulled back across the line before the portly referee arrived. The team won 34 of their 35 matches and scored 976 points against just 59 by their opponents.


In December 1905 a Daily Mail columnist wrote that one subject possessed him ‘body, soul and spirit: the all-conquering Blacks. Every word written in the newspapers about the colonials I have devoured … I know their Christian names, surnames, nicknames, birthplaces, pedigrees etc. and every stray biographical fact … I never wear anything but black now, and all my gorgeous fancy vests and the more brilliant ties have been given away … My life, dear reader, has become a perfect misery. Why, only the other day I made a long journey in a penny ’bus to the Cottage Tearooms in the Strand in order that I might see the girl there who wears a silver fern brooch.’2

Significance of the tour

There were criticisms in Britain of the Originals’ play, especially their use of the wing forward, who was seen as an offside cheat. Some had reservations because the team did not face the strength of English rugby in Lancashire and Yorkshire, where the Rugby League had been formed 10 years earlier.

Nevertheless, there was praise for the players’ sporting success and their demeanour off the field, and acknowledgement of what they had achieved in New Zealand’s name. British commentators saw the All Blacks’ success as evidence of the virile strength of the colonies, and the Auckland Observer noted: ‘Their tour and its splendid achievements have not only added to the prestige of New Zealand football … but have also advertised the country in a way that a score of immigrant agents and half-a-dozen Tourist Departments could not have done.’3

    • Express and Echo, 16 September 1905. Back
    • Quoted in Bob Howitt and Diane Howarth, All Black magic: 100 years of New Zealand test rugby. Auckland: HarperSports, 2003, p. 26. Back
    • Observer, 10 March 1906, p. 2. Back

Club and provincial rugby

Club rugby

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 rugby

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.

Wool sale

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.

Ranfurly Shield

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.

Provincial and regional rugby since 1976

National Provincial Competition

In 1976 a National Provincial Competition (NPC) was introduced. This established a round-robin format of play by provinces for competition points within divisions. The competition has had a variety of formats, but there have normally been three divisions involving all 26 unions. In 2011 the ITM Cup began with two competitions, a Premiership and Championship each contested by seven teams, and a 12-team Heartland Championship, in which the top four teams contested the Meads Cup and the next four the Lochore Cup. Semi-finals and finals were introduced in 1992.

By 2022 Auckland (with 16 wins) and Canterbury (14 wins) had been the most successful teams at the top level. In the early years Bay of Plenty, Counties and Manawatu won the competition, but since 1985 only Wellington and Waikato (with three wins each) had challenged the two powerhouses. Not surprisingly these are the home locations of Super Rugby teams, along with Otago (two wins). In 2014 this pattern was broken by Taranaki. Tasman won its first title in 2019 and was successful again in 2020.

Super Rugby

For all its success, the NPC is now seen as a lesser competition by New Zealand Rugby (formerly the New Zealand Rugby Union), which gives priority to the Super Rugby teams. Super Rugby followed the acceptance of professional rugby in 1995. The next year SANZAR (South Africa, New Zealand, Australia Rugby) organised a professional competition between 12 Super teams. There were five teams in New Zealand – the Blues, based in Auckland, Chiefs in Hamilton, Hurricanes in Wellington, Crusaders in Christchurch and Highlanders in Dunedin. In 2006 an additional Australian and South African team were added, and in 2011 another Australian team, making a Super 15 with five teams in each country. In 2016 a sixth South African team and Argentinian and Japanese franchises were added. The competition reverted to 15 teams in 2018. After the 2020 season was severely disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the South African franchises decided to join a European professional competition. Subsequent Super Rugby Pacific competitions have involved five Australian, five Pacific and two Pacific Island teams.

The greatest?

Rugby fans will never agree on the greatest player – but in Super Rugby Daniel Carter, the Crusaders’ first five-eighths, has been the highest points-scorer. Part of the competition-winning team three times, by the time he left New Zealand in 2015 he had scored 1,708 points, nearly 300 more than anyone else. Carter was also the all-time highest scorer in international rugby, with 1,598 points.

In the first 24 years of Super competition, 1996–2019, the Crusaders won 10 times (and were runner-up four times) and the Blues three times (only equalled by a South African team, the Bulls). Other New Zealand teams to win the competition were the Chiefs in 2012 and 2013, the Highlanders in 2015 and the Hurricanes in 2016.

Despite the extensive media coverage of Super Rugby, outside the main centres many rugby followers continue to show a greater allegiance to their provincial team than to their Super franchise.

International rugby – northern hemisphere

The marker of New Zealand’s success in rugby has always been the international game. The game in New Zealand is said to be in good shape if the All Blacks are winning, not so good if they are losing.

A small world?

Globally, rugby is not a widely played sport. World Rugby (formerly the International Rugby Board) ranks more than 100 countries but rugby is the dominant sport in only five – New Zealand, Wales, Samoa, Tonga and Fiji. In South Africa it is dominant within the white community. Before the first World Cup in 1987, the IRB had just eight member countries – Australia, England, France, Ireland, New Zealand, Scotland, South Africa and Wales. France had been admitted only in 1978. In Asia, North and South America (except Argentina), Africa (apart from South Africa) and many parts of Europe, rugby is a minority sport which few have seen.

New Zealand’s perennial opponents have been Australia, the so-called ‘home countries’ (England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland), France and South Africa. Although New Zealand has played 20 different opponents, the majority of games have been against these countries and the composite British and Irish Lions. By 2022 the All Blacks had a victory rate of 77% against all international opponents, the best record of any team.

Until the 1970s international tours lasted several months, with many midweek games against regional sides and a touring party of up to 30 players. The coming of jet travel and the professionalisation of the game led to shorter tours, with most of the games being internationals.

The home countries

The 1905 tour established the importance of the ‘home countries’ of the UK as opponents. On tours of Britain the All Blacks played individual countries. There were significant tours in 1905–6, 1924–25 (when the ‘Invincible’ All Blacks were unbeaten), 1935–36, 1953–54, 1963–64, 1972–73 and 1978 (a grand slam tour, with all four home countries beaten). More recently, there have been month-long end-of-year tours to the northern hemisphere.

When visiting New Zealand from 1930, the British and Irish sides formed a united Lions team. Following that initial tour, there were long Lions tours in 1950, 1959, 1966, 1971 (when the Lions won the series 2–1), 1977, 1983 and 1993, and shorter Lions tours in 2005 and 2017. Since 1963 there have been shorter tours by individual home countries to New Zealand. On these tours, at home or away, New Zealand have never been beaten by Scotland, or until 2016 by Ireland. Wales beat the All Blacks in three out of their first four meetings, but have not won since 1953. By 2022 the All Blacks had played England 42 times and won 33 matches, with two drawn. They had won 26 of 37 matches against the Lions.


Often playing a mercurial, unpredictable game, the French have always been dangerous opponents for the All Blacks, whom they have beaten twice in the world cup knock-out stage and almost beat in the 2011 final. By 2022 New Zealand had played France 62 times, with 48 victories.

International rugby – southern hemisphere

South Africa

Historically New Zealand’s strongest opponent has been South Africa, against which New Zealand has had 59% success – 61 wins from 103 games by 2022. The contests began with drawn series in New Zealand in 1921 and South Africa in 1928. Subsequent series losses to South Africa at home in 1937 and in South Africa in 1949 wounded national pride. There was revenge, and huge public interest, in New Zealand’s 3–1 victory at home in 1956. Thereafter, until South Africa’s sporting isolation because of apartheid, series were won by the host country – New Zealand in 1965 and 1981, and South Africa in 1960, 1970 and 1976.

During these years rugby contacts with South Africa were often controversial because of the country’s racial policies. The New Zealand Rugby Football Union (NZRFU) did not select Māori for teams going there in 1928, 1949 and 1960, in accordance with South African wishes. This policy changed in the 1960s and New Zealand sent a multiracial team for the first time in 1970. Such was New Zealand’s obsession with beating South Africa that the NZRFU remained adamant the (mainly white) Springboks should tour in 1981, precipitating widespread civil unrest. After a scheduled 1985 tour of South Africa was cancelled following legal action, a covertly organised tour by a rebel New Zealand team, the Cavaliers, went ahead in 1986.

After the coming of professional rugby in 1996, New Zealand played South Africa as part of an annual Tri-Nations competition with Australia.


New Zealand’s first international test match was against Australia in 1903, and for many years there were regular contests. The New Zealanders considered the Wallabies relatively easy-beats. However, from the 1990s, especially with the coming of professional rugby, this changed. By 2016 New Zealand had beaten Australia 122 times in 175 matches (70% success).

Worst day

Perhaps the darkest day in All Blacks rugby was 3 September 1949, when the All Blacks lost two test matches. The first, at Athletic Park, Wellington, saw New Zealand lose to Australia 11–6. Some hours later the All Blacks were beaten by South Africa 9–3 in Durban. The NZRFU had arranged a tour by Australia to give Māori players excluded from the South African tour the opportunity to play test rugby. Four Māori played at Athletic Park – captain Johnny Smith, Vince Bevan, Ben Couch and ‘Kiwi’ Blake.

Since 1932, matches against Australia have been played for the Bledisloe Cup, which was donated by New Zealand Governor-General Lord Bledisloe. Although it was ignored for several years, including being left in storage in Melbourne after a tourism display, the cup gained a new marketing life after Australia won it in 1979. Bledisloe Cup matches are now a high point of the trans-Tasman sporting year. By 2022, New Zealand had won or retained the trophy 50 times to Australia’s 12.


From 1996 New Zealand played South Africa and Australia annually in the Tri-Nations competition. In 2012 this became the Rugby Championship and included Argentina. By 2022 New Zealand had won the Tri-Nations or Rugby Championship 19 times, with Australia and South Africa winning four times each.

Rugby World Cup

First cup

After rejecting two proposals, the International Rugby Board (now World Rugby) agreed reluctantly to a world cup in the mid-1980s. World Rugby now counts the cup as its main income source and calls it one of the top three sporting events in the world (after the Olympic Games and the football world cup). New Zealand and Australia were successful with a joint proposal for 1987, the year chosen to avoid a clash with those other events. Sixteen countries played in the first tournament in New Zealand and Australia. It was won by the All Blacks, who defeated France 29–9 in the final.

Food for thought

The 1995 World Cup final was a dramatic affair. Both the Springboks and All Blacks were undefeated and at the end of normal time the score was locked at 9–9. In extra time both sides kicked a penalty, and seven minutes from the end Joel Stransky kicked the winning dropped goal for South Africa. Afterwards the All Blacks revealed that most of them had suffered from food poisoning in the two days before the match. Some vomited on the pitch. It was speculated, but never proven, that they had been deliberately poisoned by a waitress at their hotel.

Lack of success, 1991–2007

South Africa was excluded from the first two cups because of the country’s apartheid policy. Qualifying rounds were introduced for the 1991 cup, which was played in the United Kingdom, Ireland and France. The All Blacks were eliminated in a semi-final in Dublin by Australia. They were beaten in the final in 1995 by hosts South Africa, lost a semi-final to France in 1999 in London, lost a semi-final to Australia in Sydney in 2003, and were beaten in a quarter-final by France in Cardiff in 2007.

2011 World Cup

Twenty years of national anguish ended in 2011. The All Blacks narrowly won the Webb Ellis Cup 8–7 over France, when the final was played at Eden Park in Auckland for the second time. With New Zealand sole host of the tournament of 24 teams, the 2011 cup was a major social and cultural event which attracted more than 100,000 overseas visitors.

2015 World Cup

In the 2015 World Cup, hosted by England, the All Blacks defeated Australia in the final 34-17 to become the first team to win back-to-back titles and the first team to win the cup three times.

2019 World Cup

The All Blacks were favoured to win a third consecutive Webb Ellis Cup in a tournament played in Japan. They finished third after a semi-final capitulation to England, who were beaten by South Africa in the final.

The changing game


Amateurism was a founding principle of rugby that distinguished it from association football (soccer). Rugby was not alone in the belief that sport should be played for enjoyment rather than monetary gain, but it clung longest to the principle. There was also a class element to amateurism. Southern English administrators, mostly educated at public schools and at Oxford or Cambridge, wanted to keep their game ‘pure’.

A pioneer of the New Zealand game, Tom Ellison, argued that the amateur laws were never intended to apply to tours. The 1905–6 New Zealand team was criticised by the Scottish and Irish unions for paying its players expenses of three shillings a day. They argued this amounted to professionalism, but the English union ruled otherwise. As a consequence, Scotland briefly broke off relations with England and, in 1924, refused to allow the All Blacks to play in Scotland.

Challenge of league

A year after the return of the All Blacks in 1906, the game faced its first crisis. It was reported in April 1907 that a New Zealand group was negotiating with clubs in the Northern Union – which had broken away from rugby union in 1895 to form rugby league – for a tour by ‘the All Blacks’. The idea came from a Wellington rugby player, Albert Baskerville. The New Zealand Rugby Football Union (NZRFU), guarding the amateur principle, took various actions against the players, but the first league team left New Zealand in August 1907 for matches in Sydney and Britain. It included nine All Blacks. A tour of New Zealand in 1908 by an Anglo-Welsh team (Scotland and Ireland refused to join) was intended to prop up the amateur game, and the NZRFU also began selecting official Māori teams in 1910, in part to offer Māori players an alternative to rugby league.

High price to pay

In 1981 Graham Mourie captained the All Blacks on a tour to Romania and France. At that time players were unpaid, and in order to tour, Mourie had to hire a manager for his Taranaki farm; his chief farm labourer was his wife. When the All Blacks returned from France, Mourie calculated the cost: ‘Wages - $1200 (it would have been more but [wife] Claudia sacked the manager for being incompetent). Cost of incompetence: another $1200. A relatively cheap tour.’ In 2022 terms, $2,400 was worth $12,000.

Some NZRFU administrations were accused of turning a blind eye to breaches of amateurism, but others were just as zealous as the English. A dominant All Black of the 1980s, Andy Haden, appeared before the NZRFU to answer charges of professionalism. He was cleared. Players who switched to league were instantly banned and even an All Blacks captain, Graham Mourie, was declared a professional for writing a book.


Rugby union abandoned amateurism in 1995, exactly a century after the Lancashire and Yorkshire clubs had formed the Northern Union. Even then, the International Rugby Board (IRB) declared the game ‘open’ only after three national unions, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, began paying their leading players. Anecdotally, players in some countries had been paid ‘under the table’ for years.

The professionalisation of rugby enabled the creation of the Tri-Nations and Super 12 competitions. (By 2016 the Tri-Nations had become four and Super Rugby had swollen to 18 franchises based in five countries spanning seven time zones.) On the basis of large payments for television rights to games, players in the All Blacks and Super teams were contracted for considerable sums. The best players could earn up to $1 million a year, including private sponsorship. Provincial players were also paid. Stadiums became more exclusive. Open ‘terraces’ with standing room only were replaced by all-seated stadiums with corporate boxes, members’ lounges and video screens.

New rules and styles

Rugby league was seen as a more open, free-flowing game, which led the unions in New Zealand and New South Wales to lobby for law changes that would make rugby as attractive. One suggestion was that a kick in open play from outside the 25-yard line which went into touch on the full should result in a throw-in to the opposing team opposite the point where the kick had been made. New Zealand and Australia promoted this before the First World War, and even played it as a local rule in defiance of the English, until it was finally adopted by the IRB in 1969. The two countries also argued for the replacement of injured players, a change the IRB agreed to in 1968. Substitutions for tactical reasons have been permitted since 1996.

New Zealand was forced to drop its wing forward position and scrum formation of two-three-two (replaced by the orthodox three-four-one) in 1931, when it was told that if it wanted to continue to play international rugby, it would have to comply with international rules.

Women’s and Māori rugby

Exclusion of women

The game of rugby union, like its various footballing cousins, was designed in Britain by males for males. When rugby came to New Zealand, there was no place for women. Suggestions that women could play were opposed by doctors. In 1921 Christchurch doctor William Simpson stated, ‘Football for girls would prove deleterious from both the physical and temperamental standpoint.’1

A women’s game

Although football in rural Britain was normally played by men, there were exceptions. In Inverness married women and spinsters used to have a match, about which it was written:

‘A time there is for all, my mother often says,
When she, with skirts tucked very high,
With girls at football plays’.2

A game apparently played in Wellington in 1888 between a team from Wellington Girls’ High School and the Hallelujah Lasses Club was an isolated novelty. As late as the 1970s, after-match functions at Athletic Park, Wellington, the headquarters of the New Zealand game, were for men only. Wives of officials and players were confined to a ‘ladies only’ room a corridor away from their men.

Women playing

Until the last third of the 20th century, women’s games continued to be novelty affairs. It was only in the 1980s, when women took the game seriously, that men took notice too. A University of Canterbury women’s team played in the northern hemisphere in 1988 and was invited to play in the 1991 European Cup, which was renamed the World Cup. National women’s teams fielded in 1989 and 1991 (beaten by the United States in a semi-final of the World Cup) were not recognised by the New Zealand Rugby Football Union.

Official recognition came in 1992, the union’s centenary year. The national women’s team, known as the Black Ferns, won the first four World Cup tournaments authorised by the International Rugby Board (1998, 2002, 2006 and 2010). But even that was not enough to supplant the men. In 2006 the All Blacks were named the NZRFU’s team of the year despite the women winning the World Cup. The Black Ferns won a fifth World Cup in 2017 and a sixth in 2022, when the tournament was played in New Zealand, attracting record crowds and intense media interest.

Bad blood

On 7 September 1921 the Springbok team defeated a New Zealand Māori team at Napier 9–8 amid complaints of rough play and poor refereeing. Two days later a cable sent by a South African reporter was published. It read: ‘Most unfortunate match ever played ... Bad enough having play team officially designated New Zealand natives, but spectacle thousands Europeans frantically cheering on band of colored men to defeat members of own race was too much for Springboks, who frankly disgusted.’3 The leak caused an outcry.

Māori rugby

Māori played a significant part in the early history of rugby through their quick adoption of the game, their role in organising the 1888 Native tour, and their pioneering use of the haka and the black singlet with the silver fern. Tom Ellison, the promoter in New Zealand of the wing forward position, captained the first official New Zealand team in 1893.

The threat from rugby league led to the organisation of a Māori rugby team in 1910. A national Māori team (now called the ‘Māori All Blacks’) has been assembled periodically since then. In a famous match in 1921 they lost to the Springboks 9–8. Their first northern-hemisphere tour, in 1926–27, was organised as compensation for the exclusion of Māori from the 1928 All Blacks tour of South Africa. On their seven-month tour the team won 30 of its 40 matches. In 2005 the national Māori team beat the British and Irish Lions, and in the centenary year of 2010 they defeated both England and Ireland.

Regional tournaments between Māori teams have also been played regularly.

    • Evening Post, 11 July 1921, p. 8. Back
    • Joseph Strutt, The sports and pastimes of the people of England. Rev ed. London: Methuen, 1903, p. 96 (originally published 1801). Back
    • New Zealand Truth, 17 September 1921, p. 6, (last accessed 14 January 2013). Back

Other forms of rugby


A shorter version of rugby involving teams of seven players competing over two seven-minute halves has grown in popularity and importance. The game began in Scotland in 1883 and was played spasmodically, often at the beginning of the rugby season, during the 20th century. It became more significant following the establishment of the Hong Kong Sevens in 1976, followed by the Rugby World Cup Sevens in 1993 and the World Sevens series in 1999. The series consists of multiple tournaments across the world, including a New Zealand round. Tournaments are held over a weekend and feature a carnival atmosphere with the crowd donning fancy dress.

Under the influence of former coach Sir Gordon Tietjens, New Zealand was spectacularly successful, winning 12 of the 18 sevens championships up to 2017. Sevens rugby was included in the Commonwealth Games in 1998, and since then New Zealand has won five gold medals, a silver and a bronze at seven tournaments. New Zealand also won the Sevens World Cup in 2001. In 2016 sevens became an Olympic sport, and the New Zealand men’s and women’s teams qualified for the Rio games. Expected to bring home a medal, the men were knocked out in the quarter-finals by the eventual gold medallists, Fiji. The women’s team reached the final and took home silver after losing to Australia. The Black Ferns had their revenge at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, defeating their trans-Tasman opponents in the final in extra time. 


Touch is a form of rugby in which tackling is replaced by touching. Teams usually comprise six players, and frequently include both men and women. The game began in Australia and spread to New Zealand in the 1970s. In 2013–14 it was the 20th-most popular recreational activity in New Zealand, with 4.9% of New Zealanders aged 16 or above playing. There was high participation by Māori and Pacific peoples. Touch New Zealand claimed in 2015 that more than 230,000 New Zealanders played the game, making it the largest team sport by participation in the country.

Although touch is largely a social game, there are serious competitions, including regular trans-Tasman tests and a world cup which began in 1988. New Zealand has consistently finished second to Australia in the men’s and women’s open competitions, and has won the mixed open competition twice.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Ron Palenski, 'Rugby union', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 7 December 2023)

He kōrero nā Ron Palenski, i tāngia i te 5 Sep 2013, updated 1 Sep 2016