Ancient Beginnings


 New Zealand was the last country in the world to be settled by humans.

Isolated for some 80 million years, the wildlife in these ‘shaky isles’ started out with the place to themselves. With no predators scheming to put them on the menu, Aotearoa New Zealand’s first inhabitants grew some weird and wonderful adaptations – many not found anywhere else in the world.

The first wave of settlers from across the seas, ancestral Māori, stepped onto these shores in the 13th century and soon set about making their mark…


Long before humans set foot on our shores, ball games were a popular pastime in the ancient world.

Deep in the mists of time, rugby’s ancestors are closely intertwined with those of football. The Greeks played a type of archaic football called episkyros and Roman soldiers kept fit playing harpastum – a gymnastic game with similarities to modern rugby.

Many other cultures have played games involving teams and balls, with examples found in Asian, Māori, Eskimo and Polynesian cultures.

By the Middle Ages, the violent spectacle of mob football was a common sight in Britain. Vague rules and unlimited players meant these somewhat wild events tended to resemble village riots more than rugby…


Medieval football (World Rugby Museum – Twickenham)


 Which came first – soccer or rugby?

Although sporting folklore often says rugby football grew out of association football (soccer), it seems that most of the ancient forms of ‘football’ allowed for the ball to be handled during play.

 With the exception of Eton, all 19th century British public school ‘football’ rules permitted catching the ball. Even the first British Football Association (soccer) laws drafted in 1863 allowed for players to catch the ball!

So ultimately, it was the dribbling-only version of soccer that broke away from the older tradition of rugby football.


Ki-o-rahi: our indigenous game

 Played with a flax ki (or ball) ki-o-rahi is a traditional pre-European Māori ball game with similarities to rugby.

Māori tribes had numerous variations and names for their ancient ball games, many of which are specific to hapū (or family groups), with their stories and histories often kept within the group. Ki-o-rahi is a full contact tackle game based on an ancient concept of playing with a round ball around a central pou tupu (or pillar). Games were played by men, women and children and conducted at a frenetic and rowdy pace.

Discouraged by European missionaries in the 18th century, the sport went underground; and since the 1940s has undergone a revival and translation into mainstream society. Ki-o-rahi is now played in schools in New Zealand, was known in places in Europe where Māori Battalion soldiers were stationed in World War II, and recently has been adopted in elementary schools in the USA.


Replica flax Ki-o-rahi ball

The Kiwi – a New Zealander by another name

Our national bird boasts many weird and wonderful features that can be traced back to the country’s ancient isolation and lack of mammals.

Thought to have evolved to occupy a habitat and lifestyle that elsewhere in the world would be filled by a mammal, their one-off evolutionary design holds all sorts of biological records. They are flightless, nocturnal, have feathers like hair and nostrils at the end of their beaks.

Named by Māori, kiwi feather cloaks (kahu kiwi), were taonga (treasures) usually reserved for chiefs. In the latter half of the 19th century as the kiwi started to disappear from the bush, its image began appearing on New Zealand products, banknotes and stamps, later to become the defining national identity under which ‘proud kiwis’ paraded on sports grounds and battlefields the world over.

The Silver Fern – a national sporting emblem

The ponga (or silver fern) is a species of tree fern, Cyathea dealbata. An ancient plant that abounds in the damp of New Zealand’s bush, it’s easily recognised by the silvery-white waxy underside to its large fronds.

Prolific in native bush, and important to Māori for food and medicine, silver ferns have become pervasive as an unofficial symbol of New Zealand identity. Its many traditional uses included placing the silvery side of the frond facing up as a route or trail marker in the bush.

For a people once known as ‘Fernlanders’, the immense sense of pride that New Zealanders now associate with the symbol’s placement on the jerseys of our sporting heroes, means the fern has an indisputable place in New Zealand culture.1