Why Is Rugby The National Sport of New Zealand?

New Zealand

Whether you catch a game in a sports bar or feel the electric atmosphere in a stadium, rugby is a great choice to immerse yourself in Kiwi culture. From cities to small villages, no part of New Zealand’s landscape is quite complete without a set of Rugby goalposts. Rugby is the official national sport of New Zealand with its national team, being one of the top international rugby union teams in the world – the All Blacks. So how it all begin?

A brief look at rugby’s origins

Rugby is a team sport that is currently played in more than 120 countries over the globe. The modern version of the game is traced back to 1820s England, when a Rugby School student called William Webb Ellis dared the rules of the era’s traditional football matches by taking the ball in his arms and running forward with it, instead of bringing it back to his own line as was then expected. Ellis’ feet was the catalyst to the founding of new game rules, which quickly spread from Rugby School to other institutions after the 1840s. By the 1860s, the new rugby code had finally achieved traction, eventually making its way outside of England.


A football match between England and Scotland, circa 1880 | © Rugby Pioneers/Wikimedia Commons

Charles Monro: The Father of New Zealand Rugby

Like William Webb Ellis, Charles Monro introduced New Zealand to the game of rugby when he was a student. The Nelson-born boy was sent to England in 1867, at the age of 16, to be educated for an army career – a professional path which he was not eager to catch. He spent two years studying at Christ’s College in Finchley, London, and finally began playing for the school’s second rugby team (there were three of them at the time).

Charles’ father, Speaker of the House of Representatives David Monro, had come to terms with the fact that his son would not be an army man in 1869. The boy came back to Nelson in January 1870, where he joined the Nelson Football Club. At the time, the sports club played a blend of association (or soccer) and Melbourne (Australian) rules football. In joining, Monro was able to persuade his team members to try the English rugby conventions.

New Zealand’s first rugby match was played between the Nelson Club and Nelson College on 14 May 1870. The latter institution’s principal, Reverend Frank Simmons, was himself a Rugby School alumni and was happy to oblige with the game’s rules. The match, consisting of 18 players on each side, held a place at the Botanical Reserve in front of 200 observers. Monro was part of the Club team, which beat the College side with a score of 2-0.


Memorial Statue of Charles Monro at the New Zealand Rugby Museum | © Michal Klajban/Wikimedia Commons

Rugby New Zealand wide

After that first game, Monro was invited to organize a match against a Wellington-based team made up of previous English public school students. This, in turn, became New Zealand’s first inter-district rugby match. Not only did Monro select and train the players on the Wellington side, but he also played for the Nelson Club and led to the entire game.

From there, rugby achieved widespread attention. Dunedin hosted its first provincial match against Auckland In September 1875. In 1879, The first Provincial Unions were formed in Canterbury and Wellington, while New Zealand’s first national touring team took to the field in 1884. The latter, wearing a signature blue jersey with a golden fern, played and won a series of matches against New South Wales.


New Zealand Rugby Originals 1905 | © Archives New Zealand/Flickr

The New Zealand Rugby Football Union was organized to administer what was quickly becoming New Zealand’s national sport in May 1892. The All Blacks played their first official test match against Australia in 1903, while the Maori All Blacks team assembled for the first time in 1910.

First, the All Blacks were a touring team, relying on club players from over New Zealand as they traveled and played against the international sides. In 1905, Wearing their black uniforms with silver ferns, ‘The Originals’ toured Britain and Europe. Since then, the All Blacks have become a force to be reckoned with in the international stage, scaring its opponents with their skills as well as their famous pre-game haka performances.


Beyond the national teams: Rugby in the community

Rugby is the most-watched, played and discussed sport in New Zealand today. Given its grassroots roots, the sport naturally resonates with all facets of the wider community.

Every Saturday, school teams over the country play against each other – there are local, regional and national competitions for young Kiwi players of all ages. Rugby clubs are also known to play Saturday morning matches, and small-town community clubs are often a hub for social functions. Even the most famous rugby players are said to continue holding strong links with their first community clubs, with playing in provincial teams while juggling their hectic All Blacks’ playing schedules.

While this was traditionally a men’s sport, women’s teams also represent the country at a school, club and national level.


Grassroots Rugby matches were also broadcasted on Sky TV during the 21-week club match season. In August 2017, however, Toyota Grassroots Rugby published that it would no longer be broadcasting the games. The organization had been screening these community matches for 19 years.

But it’s not all bad news for Kiwi rugby. As demographics and social notions change, organizations both in the national and community stage continue to adapt so as to keep the Kiwi passion alive. More chances to play beyond the Saturday time slots have been emerging all over New Zealand, and diversity is an issue that is currently being debated in clubs across the country.

By: Thalita Alves | theculturetrip.com

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