Rugby: New Zealand’s Obsession - A Brief history


Essential reading for those planning a trip to New Zealand, the following ‘Rugby Trivia’ allows one to easily engage into a conversation with the natives. 

Considered Fine Art in New Zealand: Blenheim artist Terry Stewart displays the rugby ball sculpture he created from spider web.

Our national religion obsession rugby team the ‘All Blacks’ command the countries undivided attention, so much so, that New Zealand is often referred to as the ‘Stadium of Five Million’

The History of Rugby:

Historians believe rugby developed from a game ‘Cornish hurling’ that was played in Cornwall, England, during the 17th and 18th centuries. The idea was the first team to get the ball to their goal was the winner - very few rules and no referees. In 1845, three lads at Rugby School in England published the rules of this game that had been played at their school for at least a century. They called it ‘rugby football’ and all modern forms of rugby developed from this game include rugby union and league, touch, sevens, as well as American and Canadian football. 

Jonah Lomu fend

In the beginning...

New Zealand was ‘discovered again’ by a Dutch chap called Abel Tasman in 1642, but Mr Tasman, knowing nothing of rugby fortunately made no attempt to settle. In 1769, New Zealand was ‘discovered’ yet again by Captain James Cook – an Englishman. European colonisation soon followed and it was Englishman Charles Monro who introduced the oval ball to New Zealand with the nation’s first official Rugby match was played in Nelson the 14th of May 1870, between Nelson College and Nelson Football Club.

The sport then caught on quickly and the first inter-provincial match was played just five years later between Auckland and Dunedin. In 1883, the great rugby rivalry between the Aussies (Australians) and Kiwi’s (New Zealanders) began when a team from New South Wales toured New Zealand. The result is unknown but what we do know is that a New Zealand team made a return tour to Australia in 1884 and won all their games. The first British team to visit arrived in 1888 and it wasn’t until 1921 that the South African made it over.   

The origins of the game of rugby

Politics and Rugby

Politics and sports collided in 1981 when the South African Springbok team toured New Zealand, sparking massive never seen before protests and a huge debate about whether the nation should be hosting a team from apartheid-ruled South Africa. The rugby games are not as well remembered as much as the political significance of the era, and the integral role that Rugby has played in the formation of New Zealand’s cultural fabric.   

Springbok tour protest 1981

Rugby World Cup

The inaugural Rugby World Cup was held in 1987 in both New Zealand and Australia, and was triumphantly won by the All Blacks, and is held on a 4 yearly cylce. The winners of the tournaments are awarded the Webb Ellis Cup - named after William Webb Ellis, who according to rugby lore, invented the game by picking up the ball during a football game.

Although New Zealand’s national Rugby team still wears the black jersey, the game has continued to evolve over the years. After the Rugby World Cup tournament in South Africa, in 1995, international Rugby became a professional sport.   

The New Zealand men's national rugby union team, known as the All Blacks, have played 50 matches in the eight Rugby World Cup tournaments from 1987 to 2015. They won the 1987, 2011 and 2015 tournaments. They are the only team never to have lost a pool match and to have always qualified in first place from every group.

The Mighty Haka

One particularly intense source of pride is the haka, a traditional Māori warrior challenge the All Blacks perform before every match. the Haka is a ceremonial war dance that was part of the pre-cursor to battles between local īwi (tribal groups).

The very first New Zealand representative rugby team, known as The Natives, performed a haka during a tour of Britain and Australia in 1888-89. The haka performed then, Ka Mate, is still performed by the All Blacks today. Originally, the haka was only performed by the All Blacks when they played overseas.

In 1986 the Haka was incorporated into home matches as well. There are two official haka's of the New Zealand All Blacks - Kā Mate and one developed by the team itself known as KAPA O PANGO – which contains a very visceral threat at the end. Nowadays, whenever New Zealand take to the field, nobody knows which version of the Haka they will perform.


The All Black Haka

Inspired by the Mighty All Blacks - and ready to Start Planning Your New Zealand Trip?

The options for exploring New Zealand are limitless. Check out our Self Drive Itineraries for ideas or get in touch with our travel specialists who will be happy to arrange a private guided tour with everything tailored exactly as you wish.


Brent Narbey
Brent Narbey
: 1 Mar 2011 (Last updated: 22 Mar 2022)

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