THE BIRTH OF NEW ZEALAND’S GAME
Julius Vogel – Founding father of railway…
As the 1860s drew to a close, gold production fell and wool prices plummeted. The ambitious Colonial Treasurer, Julius Vogel, believed New Zealand could only grow if it attracted more people and capital.
In 1870 he launched a bold programme of public works – building railways and roads across the country and promoting large-scale assisted immigration that saw the settler population double during this decade – to around 500,000…
Charles Monro – Founding father of rugby…
Palmerston North resident, Charles Monro, is the man who brought rugby to New Zealand, having been initiated into the game as a boy whilst studying at Christ’s College, Finchley, in London.
In 1870, upon his return to New Zealand, Charles organised the first recognised game of rugby between the Nelson Football Club and Nelson College. He was also the man behind the first inter-district game, with a group from Nelson Football Club playing a Wellington selection at Petone later that same year.
From its South Island beginnings, the game spread ‘like fire through the fern’. At the start of the decade there was only one rugby club in Nelson and one in Wellington, but by 1879 there were over 80 clubs across the country…
Nelson in 1870 – where rugby kicked off…
At the Nelson Botanical Reserve on Saturday, 14 May, 1870, the Nelson Football Club played Nelson College in the first recorded football game in New Zealand (played under Rugby School rules).
Two hundred or so spectators attended the 18 a-side game, with the Nelson Examiner commenting that they “seemed to enjoy it as much as the players themselves, laughing heartily at the various spills etc.”
The Nelson Football Club (established back in 1868 playing a hybrid game) finished victorious – 2 goals to one. The club had been convinced to adopt the rules of Rugby School by 19 year old Charles Monro when he returned home in 1870 from his schooling in London. A desire to see the new style of game take root saw him approach Nelson College where the headmaster, Reverend Frank Simmons, was a former pupil of Rugby School. The headmaster agreed to have his pupils try ‘Rugby rules’ and Charles coached the boys in the new game…
Petone in 1870 – the start of inter-provincial rivalry…
After the Nelson rugby lads had exhausted their local competition, the club sought out new opposition, and Charles Monro was asked to source a team in Wellington for an inter-island match.
Whilst staying in Wellington, Charles joined a football game between a Wellington team and sailors from a visiting English navy ship at the Basin Reserve. Charles then convinced the local players to adopt ‘Rugby rules’ and accept a challenge from Nelson. The first instance of government support of rugby is also thanks to Charles and his father, Sir David Monro, as they managed to convince Colonial treasurer Julius Vogel to arrange a Government steamer to collect the Nelson team and bring them across Cook Strait.
Heavy rain made the Basin Reserve an unplayable bog, so Charles then walked a 30km round trip to the Hutt Valley to find a replacement field at Petone.
The Nelson team finally steamed into town and defeated Wellington on 12 September, 1870. As he had done in Nelson, Monro was player-coach as well as being the referee!
In 1904 Charles wrote about the historic fixture:
“There was no crowd to watch our game [about 12 spectators] and cheer us on to victory, and the referee with his confounded whistle was not there to check us every half-minute, just as we were on the point of doing some heroic deed; nor was the game so scientific and full of rules and penalties as now. But how we did enjoy ourselves, both victors and vanquished, and how little we thought, in those remote times, that football would one day become the great national game of the colony…”
Inter-island travel for early teams was challenging!
The Luna steamer took the first rugby team across Cook Strait for their match against Wellington. To get to the field at Petone, they then had to travel by horse and drag. Arriving with only 12 players, Stan Prosser (the driver of one of the drags) was conscripted to play.
The Birth of Provincial Colours…
The 1870s saw many rugby clubs and two provincial unions become established and spread from south to north, with club and provincial colours taking hold in the hearts and uniforms of players around the country.
The use of colourful jerseys and emblems to distinguish sides playing the game originated in the 1830s at English private schools and quickly made its way into New Zealand team culture.
The Canterbury Rugby Union was the country’s first provincial union, formed on 26 July, 1879. The new union adopted the colours of the Christchurch Club (red and black hooped jerseys).
Not to be outdone by their southern rivals, clubs in the capital city met on 20 October, 1879 and formed the Wellington Rugby Union. This new union adopted the black and gold colours of the city’s original club, Wellington, which was formed in 1871 following the historic game against Nelson the previous year. Wellington later opted for a plain black jersey.
Newspapers often referred to teams by their colours: Auckland (the blue and whites), Otago (the blues), Wellington (the blacks). Previewing a game between Wellington and Auckland in 1889 the Evening Post reporter noted “…I think the ‘all blacks’ should be pleased if they can obtain a draw against the ‘blue and whites’.” But it was to be many years later, in 1905, that the New Zealand national team became widely known as the ‘All Blacks’.
1872: Wanganui – the third town in New Zealand to play rugby
“FOOTBALL – The proposed match will have to be postponed another week in consequence of the inability to procure a suitable ball either in Wanganui or Wellington.”
8 June 1872, The Weekly Herald (Wanganui)
Alfred Drew, who played a part in the kick-off of rugby in Nelson in 1870, also helped establish rugby in Wanganui.
The 20 a-side game he organised at Aramoho was notable for it featured a single Māori player in the ‘Country’ team. A player by the name of Wirihana goes down in history as the first Māori to take part in in an organised game of rugby.
1878: Palmerston North joins the rugby scene
Securing a ball to play with seemed to be one of the biggest challenges early players and club organisers were faced with:
“Although the ball ordered from Wellington nearly a fortnight since by the Palmerston North Football Club has not yet arrived, in order that the members should not be baulked of [their first] practice today, the Committee borrowed one…”
6 July 1878, The Manawatu Times