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Sport and the nation

by Jock Phillips

Many New Zealanders are passionate about sport, especially about the All Blacks rugby team. Sporting wins have allowed the small country to make its mark on a world stage and the country has united behind its sportspeople. But sport has also caused division, especially in the 1970s and early 1980s when New Zealand maintained sporting contact with apartheid South Africa.

The relationship between sport and nationalism

For over a century sport has engendered powerful nationalistic emotions for many New Zealanders. They have wept with happiness at sporting success, and mourned over failure. Sport has made its citizens proud to be New Zealanders on some occasions, and ashamed on others. In few countries do people identify their nation so strongly with one team and one sport as Kiwis do with the All Blacks rugby team.

Sport is an important expression of national feeling for new or emerging countries, as New Zealand was. Also, for small countries sport attracts notice on the international stage. New Zealanders, who tend to have a deep insecurity about their country’s size and isolation, savour recognition on international sporting fields and feed off admiring remarks of foreign commentators.

Rarity value

Auckland sports writer Don Cameron suggested, ‘[t]he great moments, Lovelock at Berlin, Halberg and Snell at Rome, and so on, come infrequently. Their rarity makes them all the more precious. We have time to treasure each achievement, to burnish every idol, before installing them in our pantheon of sport.’1

Defining the nation

New Zealanders have used sport to create ideas of ‘national identity’ and ‘character’. It provides symbols of race, gender and the nation’s place in the world. Stereotypes of themselves, and their opponents on the field, have been common.

Sport has not always been a force for national unity. It has also been a ground upon which major conflicts over national identity have been fought.

The media

Sport’s meaning to the nation has been affected by the way events have been reported both overseas and within New Zealand. When coverage of performances overseas was delayed or dependent on foreign correspondents, the impact was less intense than when high moments of drama were beamed by satellite into the nation’s living rooms. Political leaders also play a role in intertwining sport and nationhood when they involve themselves in celebrating sporting successes.

The silent majority?

Just before the 2011 Rugby World Cup final Auckland University professor Toni Bruce found that just under half (49%) of New Zealanders surveyed felt that winning the cup was important to them personally. 43% reported making no effort to follow the cup and 10% actively avoided it.

The limits of sporting nationalism

Fans can support a national team without being patriotic. Similarly people who have strong national loyalties may have no interest in sport. Many with a proud loyalty to New Zealand bemoan the nation’s obsession with rugby.

The nation is not the only unit of sporting loyalty. The first teams set up in New Zealand were not national teams, but rather were based on localities. Local teams have remained important and have been joined by other groupings such as a school’s old boys or girls. When provincial teams emerged, in the 1870s, new loyalties were created. Even in the 2000s the passion of Waikato rugby supporters with their Mooloo cowbells (Mooloo the cow being the team’s mascot), or of Invercargill netball followers for the Southern Sting, was as powerful as any national sentiment.

There have been larger identities beyond the nation. When settlers established sports such as cricket in the 1840s, they saw themselves upholding the distinctive manly traditions of the British Empire.

At the end of the 19th century, as international sporting encounters emerged, New Zealanders expressed loyalty to colonial teams against the mother country. They normally supported Australian cricketers against England through to the First World War. During those years sport expressed an ‘Australasian identity’. New Zealanders’ first participation in the Olympic Games of 1908 and 1912 was as part of an Australasian team. New Zealand’s great tennis player Anthony Wilding helped win the Davis Cup for Australasia from 1907 to 1909.

    • Don Cameron, Memorable moments in New Zealand sport. Auckland: Moa, 1979, p. 11. Back

Beginnings of sporting nationalism

First national stars

Until the 1890s most sporting loyalties were local. The first sporting figures attracting national pride were individual performers.

Joe Scott, a long-distance walker, was the first. He won his first race in 1875, aged 13 and weighing only 23 kilograms. He became a professional, beating all comers in New Zealand. When he visited Britain in 1887–88 his wins included a world championship belt for walking over 363 miles in 72 hours. At Dunedin’s Caledonian sports in 1889 Scott was congratulated on bringing honour to the colony and the band played ‘See the conquering hero comes’.

Another local sporting hero was the racehorse Carbine, who won the Melbourne Cup in November 1890 in record time and carrying the heaviest weight ever to victory (66 kilograms) following a series of wins over the previous three years. New Zealanders exalted in the victory of ‘the Maorilander’ and there was great celebration across the country.

Triple champion

Bob Fitzsimmons became world boxing champion in three divisions – middleweight (1891), heavyweight (1897) and light-heavyweight (1903). But it was not until the 20th century that he was widely fêted at home. When he returned in 1910, 1,000 people greeted him at Timaru railway station and the mayor welcomed him in the Theatre Royal.

Two boxers with international success – Billy Murphy, who became featherweight champion of the world in 1890, and Bob Fitzsimmons, middleweight champion the following year – did not initially attract much local following. Both were often described as ‘Australian’ pugilists although Fitzsimmons had been a Timaru blacksmith and Murphy insisted he was ‘not an Australian, but an Auckland boy, having been born in Chapel Square [in the central city]’.1

National teams

As steamships made international travel easier and the telegraph facilitated speedier transmission of international news, New Zealanders began to show interest in national teams. A New Zealand rugby team went to Australia in 1884 and, after its unbeaten tour, was welcomed back by the governor and the ships in Wellington Harbour were decorated. The team had been selected through nomination by four provincial associations, some of which gave their returning players medals.

Caught with his pants down

During a rugby match between England and the New Zealand Native team, an English player lost his trousers in a tackle. The crowd roared with laughter and, discovering his predicament, the player stopped and threw down the ball. The Native team formed a ring to shield him from view, but an English player picked up the ball, scored and was awarded the try by the referee. The Native team complained and three team members walked off in protest.

The 1888–89 Native rugby team, which played 108 matches in New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Australia, attracted some public interest. But its reputation in New Zealand became tainted by allegations of professionalism (during a time when amateurism was valued), alleged bribery, rough play and unsportsmanlike conduct. This limited the team’s appeal in a national sense. However, it was important as the first team from New Zealand to visit the old country. Also, it highlighted the importance that Māori and Māori culture (especially the use of the haka) would play in sporting nationalism. Significantly, the Native team was the first to use the silver fern on a black background as a team emblem (the 1884 team had worn blue jerseys with gold ferns).

Also using the silver fern on black were two athletics teams, one which toured New South Wales in 1890 and a second which went to England and France in 1892. They did not do well enough to stir national pride.

Versatile sportsman

Leonard Cuff, a Christchurch insurance agent, was captain of the first New Zealand cricket team in 1894. He had also founded the New Zealand Amateur Athletics Association in 1887, organised and participated in the two touring athletics teams of 1890 and 1892, won the New Zealand long jump championship three times and played rugby for Canterbury. As if this was not enough, Cuff was also a member of the International Olympic Committee which organised the first modern Olympics in 1896.

National associations

In the 1890s national associations were formed in the major sports, partly to facilitate the selection of representative teams. While five English cricket teams had toured in the 30 years before 1894, they had played provincial groupings. In February 1894 the first national cricket team was put onto the field. Later that year the New Zealand cricket council was established. In rugby, the New Zealand union was established in 1892 and the next year a national team, with newly chosen colours of black singlet with a silver fern, toured Australia. They were welcomed home by the new premier, Richard Seddon, who praised the ‘manly way they had upheld the credit of the country’.2

    • Observer, 26 July 1890, p. 11. Back
    • Press, 5 August 1893, p. 5. Back

Nationalism rampant, 1900 to 1940

In the early 20th century sport became a powerful expression of New Zealand nationalism through some highly successful teams and male sportsmen.

1905 All Blacks

Many New Zealanders discovered a national pride in sport during the New Zealand rugby team’s tour of the United Kingdom and France in 1905–6. This was not simply because of the phenomenal success of the team, which won 34 of the 35 matches played during the tour (beaten controversially only by Wales 3–0), and scored 976 points to 59. It was also because the team scored huge victories in England, the old country and home of rugby, and, even more, because the people there heaped praise on the All Blacks. At a time when there was an anxiety about the ‘degeneration of the race,’ sparked by the poor standard of British recruits to the South African War, British commentators saw the All Blacks as a reassurance about the quality of Anglo-Saxon manhood in the colonies. The success of the team gave New Zealanders an understanding of their nation’s place in the British Empire.

Puppets of ‘King Dick’

Recognising the All Blacks as national symbols, Premier Richard Seddon participated in, and encouraged, hero worship. He facilitated the speedy transmission of scores by cable from William Pember Reeves, the agent general in London; the government placed advertisements for immigrants in local newspapers on match day; and Seddon rewarded the team with an ‘American picnic’ (which included a trip to the Grand Canyon) on the way home. Not unexpectedly, the premier – dubbed ‘Minister of Football’ – was the first to board the ship on its return and welcome the team home.

Little wonder New Zealanders reacted with enthusiasm. When the heroes returned to Auckland some 10,000 people greeted them on the wharf, followed by a triumphal procession and a civic reception before another 6,000. The All Blacks were seen as personifying a ‘national character’, with their alleged ‘outdoor’ upbringing, their versatility and scorn for convention, their comradeship and the ‘natural’ leadership and modesty of their captain, David Gallaher.


When the unbeaten 1924–25 All Blacks (dubbed the ‘Invincibles’) returned from the United Kingdom, they were similarly fêted as triumphant advertisements for the country. Crowds six and seven deep lined Wellington’s streets as they processed from the ship.

Two significant aspects of national character were emphasised. The Invincibles were said to replicate the characteristics of the New Zealand soldier in the First World War, and the success of the Māori fullback George Nēpia reinforced the ideal that in sport New Zealand’s harmonious race relations found expression. However, such views did not stop Māori from being excluded from the 1928 tour of South Africa, due to South Africa’s race policies.

Other famous sports performers

Although rugby was the dominant carrier of sporting nationalism in these years, there were other expressions of national pride:

  • In 1907 William Webb won the title of world sculling champion, and when he defended it against an Australian challenger on the Whanganui River in February 1908 there was much public interest.
  • Dick Arnst, another Kiwi and former cycling champion, then defeated Webb, and his success in defeating an Englishman for the championship on the Zambezi in 1910 was also followed closely.

Ad man

‘The famous All Blacks, the cricket tour [to England] last year and the Olympic team have all done their bit in making known the fact in distant lands that New Zealand is definitely on the map of the world. But it has remained for bluff, rugged, hard-hitting Tom Heeney … to blazon the name of this dominion in letters of gold across the whole civilised world … Thousands … now know that there is such a place as New Zealand and that this little country breeds real he-men, as exemplified in Tom Heeney.’1

  • When Tom Heeney challenged Gene Tunney for the world heavyweight boxing championship in July 1928, there was great interest in New Zealand. Admittedly Heeney was seen as fighting for the British Empire, but it was reported that all New Zealand waited for the result as keenly as they would for an All Black team, and a booklet on ‘Our Tom’ was produced. Despite being outclassed, Heeney received a ‘tumultuous reception’2 when he returned in September.
  • Although racehorse Phar Lap, a Timaru-born chestnut gelding, was trained and raced in Australia, New Zealanders took nationalistic pride in his successes (37 wins from 51 races, including the 1930 Melbourne Cup) and expressed a collective sadness at his death in San Francisco in April 1932.
  • Jack Lovelock’s victory in the 1,500 metres at the Berlin Olympics in August 1936 was probably the greatest cause for national celebration in New Zealand in the 1930s. His achievement was followed by a triumphant national tour paid for by the government. He was praised as a modest man who had brought fame to the country.
    • New Zealand Truth, 20 September 1928, p. 6. Back
    • Auckland Star, 10 September 1928, p. 11. Back

Strong men and women, 1945 to 1970


In 1949 the importance of sport to the nation was reflected in the establishment of the New Zealand Sportsman’s Trophy (which after a lapse of two years was re-established in 1963 and renamed the Halberg Awards in 1980).

Helsinki moment

When Yvette Williams won Olympic gold in the long jump, a haka broke out from groups of New Zealanders in the stadium. Williams remembered: ‘It was the greatest moment of my life … I was very proud to see the New Zealand flag going up’.1 Her father cabled her: ‘Congratulations, Chickie. Wonderful effort. Mighty proud of you. Dad.’2

Yvette Williams

Despite its masculinist name, the award for the nation’s supreme sporting achievement was won twice by a woman, Yvette Williams, in its first four years. Williams was the first woman to capture the country’s sporting imagination. In 1950 she won the long jump at the Auckland Empire Games. At the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games she came close to being eliminated through no-jumps, but went on to win gold with an Olympic record. In 1954 she broke the world record for the long jump and later that year won three gold medals at the Vancouver Empire Games.

Outdoor male heroes

It was not long before New Zealand men restored the sense of a male national identity based on outdoor strength. First, in January 1953, Godfrey Bowen broke a world record by shearing 456 sheep in front of 2,000 spectators at Ōpiki in Manawatū.

Five months later Edmund Hillary became the supreme personification of New Zealand identity when he climbed Mt Everest, the world’s highest mountain, with the Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, albeit as part of a British expedition. Hillary was immediately knighted and, later, his face was placed on the $5 note.

Arguably the most intense expression of nationalism through muscular male achievement came with the Springbok rugby tour of 1956. There was huge public interest in the attempt by the All Blacks at home to restore their dominance in the code after defeats by the South African team in 1937 and 1949. More than 60,000 people watched them win the last test, others were glued to their radios, and the headlines in the newspapers used similar-sized headings to those used for the outbreak of the Second World War.

Golden hour

In 1960 came another triumph which captured the nation. In the space of one hour a young 800-metres runner, Peter Snell, and a wily 5,000-metres exponent with a withered arm, Murray Halberg, won gold medals at the Rome Olympics. Snell followed up with world records in the mile (1,600 metres) and 800 metres, and won gold medals in both middle-distance events at the Tokyo Olympics. With coach Arthur Lydiard revolutionising training techniques for distance running, New Zealand briefly became a world leader in those events.

Other significant moments

The 1950s and 1960s saw several other achievements that brought national pride to some New Zealanders:

  • After the national humiliation of scoring the world-record low score in one innings (26) in 1955, the New Zealand cricket team finally won a test match (against the West Indies) the next year.
  • Left-handed golfer Bob Charles won the 1963 British Open, a ‘major’ tournament.
  • Racehorse Cardigan Bay won 80 of 154 races and was the first pacer to win US $1 million. By 1968 he had become a superstar in the United States and was eventually honoured at home with his own postage stamp.
  • A trio of fine drivers, Denis Hulme, Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon, were among the world’s best in motor racing, with Hulme winning the Formula One World Championship in 1967.
    • Quoted in Don Cameron, Memorable moments in New Zealand sport. Auckland: Moa, 1979. Back
    • Quoted in Richard Lawrence, Triumph and tears – 100 dramatic and memorable moments in New Zealand sport, 1897–2006. Hastings: Richard Lawrence, 2006, p. 23. Back

Sport and national debate, 1970 to 1990


In 1960 television began in New Zealand, but it was not until the early 1970s that live television coverage of sporting events, both at home and, increasingly, from overseas, became common. This made the dramas of sporting successes and failures more intense.

Distance runners again

A famous television moment that enthralled New Zealanders was Dick Tayler raising his arms in triumph after winning the 10,000 metres on the opening day of the 1974 Christchurch Commonwealth Games. His success helped revive New Zealand’s distance-running tradition. Dick Quax, Rod Dixon and, pre-eminently, John Walker suggested that the legacy of Jack Lovelock and Peter Snell lived on. Walker broke the world mile (1,600-metres) record in 1975 and won the gold medal for the 1,500 metres at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.

Sport and race

However, the 1976 Olympics were not a happy time for New Zealanders. In 1970 the All Blacks had resumed playing against South Africa when that country had allowed non-white players to tour. However, some players refused to play against apartheid South Africa; and a well-organised protest movement emerged seeking to halt sporting contacts with the republic. In 1976, while the Olympics were being held and during the Soweto riots, the All Blacks were again touring South Africa. Most African nations boycotted the Olympics in protest against New Zealand’s presence.

Bugger rugger

Many New Zealanders saw the 1981 Springbok tour as an argument about the place of rugby in the country’s identity. A 30-year-old mother wrote: ‘I have for years resented the dominance that rugby has in the homes, schools and society in general. It’s time that a few other values took over from bloody rugby.’ A 28-year-old said: ‘I disliked the macho aspect of rugby and resent the way it has dominated New Zealand culture. I was brought up in North Canterbury (Alec Wyllie country) and I detest the way rugby males relate to women.’ ‘Bugger rugger,’ wrote another. 1

Sport was becoming a cause for national embarrassment, and a fierce debate broke out which reached a peak during the 1981 Springbok tour of New Zealand. For some, rugby was the heart of New Zealand’s identity as a country of strong outdoor men. The contests with South Africa were central to this tradition and world view. Others argued that New Zealand had an identity as an opponent of racism and a fighter for human rights. Sport must accord with these values. For 56 days in the winter of 1981 New Zealanders argued with other New Zealanders about their national identity in the nation’s closest approach to civil war since the 1860s.

Rugby’s dominance reduced?

The argument had other consequences. In 1981 and 1982 many sporting Kiwis with a conscience shifted their interests to the ‘round game’ and followed the long journey of the New Zealand football team, the All Whites, to the world cup. And New Zealand women began to challenge the dominance of male sports in the media and in the national psychology.

Rugby administrators realised they had to respond to the crisis. The result was the organisation of the first Rugby World Cup, in New Zealand and Australia, in 1987 when the All Blacks restored some national pride by winning the inaugural Webb Ellis Cup.


During these years the New Zealand cricket team gained in international respect and won new local followers. In the 1970s they defeated both England and Australia in tests for the first time, and in the 1980s they won series against Australia, England and the West Indies. Players such as Richard Hadlee and Martin Crowe became household names.

Other sports reach the limelight

There were also successes which brought national attention to lesser-known sports:

  • At the 1972 Olympics the rowing eight won the gold medal and, for the first time, at the medal ceremony ‘God defend New Zealand’ was played instead of ‘God save the queen’.
  • The 1984 Los Angeles Olympics saw the small canoeing team win four gold medals.
  • Another minority sport, equestrianism, brought New Zealand renown when Mark Todd, riding Charisma, won gold medals at both the Los Angeles and Seoul Olympics. Both rider and horse became national heroes.
  • In 1983 New Zealanders followed the fortunes of unseeded (low-ranked) tennis player Chris Lewis overnight on television as he progressed to the final at Wimbledon.
  • From 1984 Susan Devoy dominated women’s squash, winning four world titles and eight British Opens. She became in 1998 the youngest New Zealand woman to become a dame. Also in 1986, Ross Norman won the men’s world squash title.
  • Racehorse Kiwi became a household hero, outside racing circles, when he came from last to win the 1983 Melbourne Cup.
    • David Mackay, and others, eds, Counting the cost – the 1981 Springbok tour in Wellington. Wellington: Victoria University History Department, 1982, p. 12. Back

Sport and the nation after 1990

The 1990s began with success in golf and sailing – sports that had wide popular participation, but little prior recognition of international achievement.

Eisenhower Trophy

In 1992 New Zealand won the men’s amateur team golf championship, the Eisenhower Trophy. The team received the supreme Halberg Award that year. One of the winning quartet, Michael Campbell, later brought fame to his country in winning the 2005 US Open.

America’s Cup

New Zealanders had experienced considerable success on the water in Olympics, but it was the (failed) attempt by New Zealand Challenge, using fibreglass-hulled boats, to win the America’s Cup in 1987, and then the 1989/90 battle for the Whitbread Round the World Yacht Race between two New Zealand teams – Peter Blake’s Steinlager 2 and Grant Dalton’s Fisher and Paykel – which drew widespread public attention to sailing.

Painting the country red

While New Zealand’s traditional sporting colour had been black, the 1995 America’s Cup campaign was notable for the adoption of Peter Blake’s favourite red socks. Many thousands of New Zealanders wore red socks in identification with the challenge.

This reached a peak in 1995 when Team New Zealand’s Black Magic won the America’s Cup 5–0 in San Diego. In commentator Pete Montgomery’s phrase: ‘The America’s Cup is now New Zealand’s cup’. Syndicate head Peter Blake and skipper Russell Coutts returned to a rapturous reception with 300,000 people lining the streets of Auckland. The success was interpreted as a new message about national identity. The black singlet man-on-the-land image had been replaced by an image of technological innovation on the water. After a successful defence in Auckland in 2000, the cup was lost in 2004.

Women’s success

Women’s participation in sport, as in other aspects of society, was generally undervalued. In the later 20th century there was increasing recognition of the achievement of New Zealand women in sports. Despite that, the women’s rugby team, the Black Ferns, which won the world cup on four occasions, did not receive their deserved recognition. However, from 1991 to 2011 the supreme sporting award (which in 1992 was renamed from Sportsman of the Year Award to the Supreme Halberg Award) was won by women on 10 occasions. Winners included:

  • the Silver Ferns netball team (2003), winners of the world championship for the fourth time in 2003, and winners of Commonwealth games golds in 2006 and 2010
  • Beatrice Faumuina (1997), world discus champion in 1997 and twice Commonwealth gold medallist
  • Valerie Adams (2007, 2008 and 2009), who won the Olympic shot put gold in 2008 and 2012
  • Sarah Ulmer (2004), who won New Zealand’s first cycling gold medal at the Athens Olympics
  • Philippa Baker (1991 and 1994), who won the world lightweight single sculls title in 1991 and, with Brenda Lawson (1994), two world double sculls titles
  • Caroline and Georgina Evers-Swindell (2001), who won gold in the double sculls at the 2004 and 2008 Olympics.

Stand up New Zealand!

At the 2012 London Olympics New Zealand won a total of 13 medals. Of these only one, Valerie Adams’ shot put gold, was not won with the competitors sitting down. The others came in rowing (six), sailing (two), cycling (two), kayaking and equestrian. Had New Zealand become a nation of sitting ducks?

Men’s Olympic rowing achievements

Men too contributed to the nation’s pride in rowing achievements. At the 2000 Sydney Olympics Rob Waddell, in the single sculls, won New Zealand’s only gold medal; at the 2012 London games New Zealand men won three golds and one bronze in rowing; and at the 2016 Rio games, the men took home two gold medals.

Pacific success

These years saw growing recognition of Pacific sportspeople. Jonah Lomu and Tana Umaga became major rugby personalities, David Tua fought for a world heavyweight boxing title in 2000, and Beatrice Faumuina (discus) and Valerie Adams (shot put) were among the nation’s starring athletes. In 1998 Samoan Sports Awards were established, following the Māori Sports Awards (which began in 1991), and were complemented by the New Zealand Pacific Island Sports Awards in 2011.

White out

The All Whites final qualifying match against Bahrain in the Westpac Stadium in Wellington, on 14 November 2009, was one of the country’s most remarkable sporting occasions. There was a sell-out crowd, and in the last few pulsating minutes, with New Zealand leading 1–0, some in the crowd, following a habit developed by the ‘yellow fever’ supporters of the professional team Wellington Phoenix, removed their white T-shirts and waved them in the air.

All Whites

In 2009 and 2010 there was much public interest in the New Zealand football team as it qualified for the world cup, and then went through the cup competition unbeaten. Virtually all the players were New Zealand-born, a striking contrast to the situation in 1981–82, the previous time a New Zealand team made it to the world cup finals, when about half were British in origin.

All Blacks

However, it was the traditional game, rugby, which brought a high point of national identification with sport, when New Zealand hosted and won the 2011 Rugby World Cup. The arrival of almost 100,000 rugby fans in the country, and the efforts made by creative people to present interesting perspectives on the country’s culture, showed how far sport was a vehicle for presenting national identity to the world. After the pain of previous losses, the cup victory was greeted with relief as much as joy. The subsequent autobiography by the All Black captain, Richie McCaw, was the fastest-selling book in New Zealand history.

Sport and creative culture

A nation is often considered to represent its identity through its creative arts. It is perhaps surprising therefore how rarely sport and New Zealand arts have mixed (perhaps because sport and the creative arts have often been set up in opposition to each other, with one valued and the other often mocked); but there are some revealing examples.

Opening ceremonies

The most obvious were the opening ceremonies of international sporting events. The 1950 British Empire Games and 1974 Commonwealth Games featured the traditional march of athletes, although in 1974 a Māori concert group performed action songs and 2,500 school children formed the games symbol with red, white and blue capes.

The 1990 Commonwealth Games saw a more ambitious presentation created by production designer Logan Brewer. With massed dance, the migration of Polynesians in their waka was enacted, followed by the traditional Māori creation story of Ranginui and Papatūānuku. A Union Jack introduced the arrival of other peoples, represented by their music and dancing.

2011 Rugby World Cup

The 2011 Rugby World Cup opening ceremony drew on similar themes. Using digital technology projecting onto Eden Park itself, the ceremony featured a Māori karanga (call of welcome), a representation of the journeys of Māori and later peoples to Aotearoa, and a massive haka, which included references to the impact of volcanoes and earthquakes. The Rugby World Cup competition was also accompanied by the Real New Zealand Festival, which featured hundreds of events, including showcases of food and wine, a Māori opera, a concert by renowned opera singer Kiri Te Kanawa, and exhibitions about the history of rugby. The colour black was a popular theme.

A national pleasure?

In Report on experience, an autobiographical book about the Second World War, writer and novelist John Mulgan saw rugby as ‘the best of our pleasures: it was religion and desire and fulfilment all in one.’ ‘[T]hey looked on war as a game,’ he wrote, ‘and a game to New Zealanders is something that they play to win, against the other side and the referee, if necessary.’1


Despite the importance of sport to New Zealanders, it was not until local realism emerged under Frank Sargeson’s influence that fiction writers tackled the subject. Inevitably it was rugby which attracted them, the first notable effort being A. P. Gaskell’s short story ‘The big game’ (1947), which dealt with a Dunedin club game. The first novel predominantly about rugby was Maurice Gee’s The big season (1962), which used the experience of a club footballer to expose the conformist culture of small-town New Zealand. Gee’s next book, A special flower (1965), followed up by identifying rugby with the emotional repressions of the Pākehā male.

A significant rugby novel was The book of fame (2000), by Lloyd Jones, one of the few literary works sympathetic to rugby. It was a semi-fictional account of the 1905 All Blacks tour and followed their transformation from rough colonials into fêted celebrities.

James McNeish authored a sympathetic semi-fictional account of a sporting hero in Lovelock (1987). Children’s author Tessa Duder drew on personal experience to write the Alex books – a highly successful series about the journey of a young female swimmer towards the Olympics.

Foreskin’s lament

‘I was part of a whole generation that grew up on wintry mornings running from between Mum’s warm coat ends on to dewy green fields that seemed as vast as the Russian steppes … ambition wasn’t far away, we could feel it rising in steam-breath from the screaming side-line mouths …There were times of closeness, father and son, brother and weary brother, waking very early on cold mornings, huddling together under a blanket in front of a wireless waiting for it … and for a whole generation god was only twice as high as the posts.’2


The most influential play about sport was Greg McGee’s Foreskin’s lament. First performed in 1980 and 1981, when debate on the Springbok tour was at its height, the play was a savage and funny attack on rugby culture for its distortion of human relationships and domination of New Zealand culture.

Roger Hall’s C’mon black! told of a trip by a dairy farmer and ardent rugby fan to the 1995 world cup in South Africa. On the journey he is forced to confront the racial and moral complexities of the world outside small-town New Zealand.


In comparison with the fiction and plays, which have targeted rugby as a symbol of the nation in a largely critical way, sports poetry in New Zealand has focused mainly on cricket and been whimsically affectionate towards the game. A 2010 anthology, A tingling catch, uncovered 125 New Zealand cricket poems by 75 authors who ranged from Samuel Butler to Brian Turner. However, in 2013 the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame published Touchlines: an anthology of rugby poetry, compiled by sports writer Ron Palenski.

Cricket on the screen

The only notable cricket film was Tangiwai (2011), a television drama. It told how, in the middle of a tense test match against South Africa on Boxing Day 1953, the fast bowler Bob Blair heard that his fiancée had tragically died in the Tangiwai rail disaster. Despite the trauma, Blair went out to bat with the injured Bert Sutcliffe and the pair hit sixes in scoring 33 for the last wicket. Their efforts were in vain. The test was lost.

Moving image

With the conspicuous exception of the hard-hitting documentary film Patu!, about the 1981 Springbok tour and the protests against it, most films and television programmes about rugby have been positive about the game’s place in New Zealand mythology. They include the National Film Unit’s Score (1980) which turned rugby into slow-motion ballet set to a Tchaikovsky score, a humorous blokes’ yarn, Carry me back (1982), and a serious documentary history series, The game of our lives (1996).

A very different pursuit was represented by the seven-part 1987 television series, The Marching girls, which followed the lives of members of a Hutt Valley marching team. It was created by Fiona Samuel, who was frustrated that Kiwi macho culture provided little space for women on the screen.

The 1950 Empire Games and the 1974 Commonwealth Games spawned ambitious films by the National Film Unit. The 1950 film began with images of beautiful New Zealand and the words ‘Blue skies and open air call us to sport.’ The most notable moving image to emerge from the 1990 games was an advertisement by director Lee Tamahori, which set the origin of the games in the trenches of the Western Front during the First World War.

    • Quoted in Harry Ricketts, ed, The Awa book of New Zealand sports writing. Wellington: Awa Press, 2010, p. 10. Back
    • Greg McGee, Foreskin’s lament. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1981, p. 93. Back

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How to cite this page: Jock Phillips, 'Sport and the nation', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Jock Phillips, i tāngia i te 5 o Hepetema 2013