Rugby is a deeply entrenched aspect of New Zealand culture. It may be seen in young boys playing rugby in a schoolyard, in a father kicking the ball around with his children on the beach, in legions of fans clad in black making their way to a test match, and in the boisterous crowds who gather in pubs throughout the country to cheer on their local team. In many ways rugby is the national game of New Zealand.

To understand how rugby came not only to dominate all other sports in the Kiwi psyche but also to be the game of the nation, we have to go back to colonial days. In colonial New Zealand, rugby was a game that both reflected New Zealand society and served as a vehicle for national assertion. Rugby as an institution was unafraid to adopt the ideals of the rural pioneer society around it, and so it melded with that society and became an extension of it.

The extent to which colonial New Zealand was identified, both at home and abroad, with rugby may be seen in the first tour of a New Zealand team to Britain in 1905. That tour exemplified a convergence of culture and sport that continues today, and results in a country that is enthralled with rugby.

New Zealand’s players were fit and physical, and, to many, the perfect illustration of the kind of man the colony could create. The rugby player was the man that colonial New Zealanders believed they were, and his success was their success.

THE 1905 TOUR OF BRITAIN

The first tour of an all-New Zealand football team to Britain in 1905 reveals how New Zealand became a rugby nation. The team that was selected—though a majority came from the population centres of Auckland, Canterbury, Otago, and Wellington—had representatives from throughout the colony’s two islands, from Auckland to Invercargill. Their occupations were just as varied, though the majority came from professional or industrial backgrounds. The captain of the team, David Gallaher, was a foreman; his vice-captain, Billy Stead, was a bootmaker. Also on the team were blacksmiths, farmers, clerks, and even a civil servant. Though some of the players were of the skilled working class, and were likely more educated than the rest of the colony’s population, to the New Zealand public they still embodied the rural, working-class spirit of the nation. Whether they were a journalist or a slaughterman, they were all colonial pioneers, and they all wanted to win.

The expectations for the team were very high, with the papers, like the Evening Post in October, remarking that “their performances would be closely followed in New Zealand, as football was the national game of the colony.” The telegram the team received from the Prime Minister Richard Seddon at the start of the tour shows the level of the colony’s hope and pride attached to the venture:

Confidently anticipated present team prove equal to strongest teams in England, demonstrating advancement scientific Rugby football in this colony […] information respecting contests taking place Great Britain awaited almost as eagerly as news late war South Africa […] The natural and healthy conditions of colonial life produce stalwart and athletic sons of whom New Zealand and the Empire are justly proud.

By drawing comparisons to the Boer War, Seddon established that this tour was more than just a series of games; it was a test of New Zealand’s imperial fitness. His allusions to the scientific advancement that the colony had made in the game, as well as the masculine attributes he described in the players, illustrate colonial inventiveness and New Zealand’s pioneer, virile spirit. New Zealand had high hopes for what their team could achieve, and knew positive results would reflect well on the colony as a whole.

The New Zealand team understood what was expected from them and what was at stake, and they took the tour very seriously from the start. On their long voyage, it was reported in the Evening Post, they trained every day with “a good run round the lower deck, then a lot of scrum work, practicing formation. After this […] dumbbell exercises.” When they arrived in England, their behaviour before matches struck the English cricketer E.H.D. Sewell as particularly intriguing. He commented, “if a team of Rugby players, the members of which are locked into their rooms after lunch for an hour’s rest before changing to go down to the ground, does not mean strict business, I should like to know what it does mean.” The team from New Zealand had come not simply to play, but to win. Maintaining their fitness and their mindset was essential to that ambition, and their approaches to the game in those regards were reflections of the win-first mindset that dominated the game in the colony.

Colonial rugby boys New Zealand

When the matches began, the team’s commitment to fitness was the first thing that clearly set them apart from their opponents. In their early games against Devonshire and Cornwall, the better conditioned and practiced New Zealanders could literally run their opponents to defeat. Even as the tour went on, the British teams would hold their own in the first half only to fade in the second as conditioning became a factor. These results caused A.O. Jones, the Leicester fullback, to admit that the British “have not the same class of players as the New Zealanders.”

Beyond physical advantage, the New Zealanders also brought to bear that “advancement scientific” the Prime Minister had hoped they would demonstrate. This was most notable in the way the colonial team formed its scrum. Traditionally, the scrum formation had three players in the front row, two behind them, and another three forming a back row. The New Zealand scrum, however, was built two-three-two, allowing one of their forwards to remain with only his hand on the scrum, ready to play the ball as soon as it was ready, a position referred to as a wing forward, and played during the tour by the team captain, Gallaher. This gave New Zealand an advantage in the set-piece, both in driving, as they could negate the pushing force of three of their opponents forwards, and in the speed with which they could get the ball to the backs on offense or put pressure on the opposition in defence. This innovation was important because of its originality, but also because, to many of the fans and commentators, it was unsporting, and thus illustrative of a win-first attitude amongst the New Zealanders.

In colonial New Zealand, rugby was a game that both reflected New Zealand society and served as a vehicle for national assertion. Rugby as an institution was unafraid to adopt the ideals of the rural pioneer society around it, and so it melded with that society and became an extension of it.

Their tactical advantage, however, extended beyond the scrum. The Daily Mail described the New Zealanders as “opportunists in the best sense of the word,” as they would exploit whatever breaks their opponents’ weaknesses offered and were determined to do whatever was needed to score.

The touring team played with vigour and, according to the Evening Post, “made no mistake about tackling low and hard.” The style of play that had often been referred to back home in New Zealand as “free and easy” was winning games and fans in Britain.

From early on in the tour, the crowds that came out to watch the games set attendance records at athletic parks across Britain, especially for New Zealand’s test matches against the British nations and Ireland, which were the real main events of the tour. After the tourists defeated Scotland and Ireland, the demand for tickets to their test with England caused the game to be relocated to a larger capacity venue. The New Zealanders handily defeated the English team, and all the Chairman of the Rugby Football Union could say to the visitors after the game was that “England was grateful on being awakened from her slackness by her colonial sons.”

New Zealand’s march of victory across Britain and Ireland was only halted in their final test with Wales. The game was incredibly close, and the Welsh emerged with a 3-0 victory, an early score the only points in the only defeat the New Zealanders suffered on their tour. Defeat was painful for the people of New Zealand, but they found solace in the quality of the competition they had lost to and in the determination of their players. The colonial papers remarked that “the standard of football played in [Wales] must be immeasurably superior to that in other parts of Britain,” and the Prime Minister himself congratulated the team for “the grit with which [they] fought after the mishap,” which has only “made us more proud of them.”

Though the climactic game of the tour resulted in defeat, the New Zealand footballers, who had come to be known as the “All Blacks,” had had a profound impact on the perception of the colony in Britain and around the empire, and were a major boost to national prestige. The Sydney Morning Herald announced that “the New Zealanders have done for football what the Australians did for cricket – they have revolutionised the game.”

Drawing rugby game colonial

The article went on to compare, as Seddon had done at the tour’s outset, the exploits of the footballers with those of New Zealand’s soldiers in South Africa. The local papers, too, understood the effect the tour’s success had on the perception of New Zealand in the imperial sphere. The Evening Post called it “a unanimous verdict that the victory over England in the Metropolis before 80,000 people is the greatest advertisement the colony has ever had.” Though the team failed to remain undefeated, the All Blacks’ exploits had put New Zealand on the map.

THE NATIONAL GAME OF THE COLONY

By 1905, rugby had not only attracted a large following in New Zealand, it had become the national game. The 1905 tour exhibited New Zealand’s nationalist sentiments because rugby in New Zealand had become an expression of the colony’s identity even before the tour established them as a formidable rugby-playing nation. This was because rugby in New Zealand had absorbed the culture of the colony as a whole, rather than trying to maintain British norms of play, and reflected back on the colony what it wanted to see in itself. The pioneer spirit of New Zealand defined the way they played rugby.

One of the clearest reasons for why colonial New Zealanders took to rugby is because it was masculine and violent. Because New Zealand was primarily colonised by workingmen, a game built on the importance of physical strength and physique found a better foothold here than it would have elsewhere. Colonial New Zealanders were fiercely proud of their physical abilities as part of the larger pioneer spirit that drove the society. It was a culture that firmly believed in its virility and hardiness, and so naturally gravitated to a game that reaffirmed that self-image.

The style of play in colonial New Zealand followed from this attention to physicality. Indeed, so aggressive was the play of the New Zealanders during the tour in 1905, it surpassed the definition of their British hosts. After their game with Leicester during the 1905 tour, the correspondent for the Evening Post commented, “many thought the game rough, but to a New Zealander it was not so.” The aggressive, physical aspects of the game certainly made the game more popular in a colony that prided itself on being a haven for masculinity and physical prowess.

Colonial rugby boys running New Zealand

Thus rugby became the national game of an emerging New Zealand. Rather than merely play the game, New Zealand’s footballers strove to innovate, to make it their own, and to dominate their opponents. The physical play that made the game so popular and the use of innovative formations and tactics were results of the win-first attitude that defined the New Zealand style. The New Zealander played to win, a habit formed in interprovincial play wherein the glory of the province was at stake. The concentration on winning created a sporting culture around the game that allowed for, and demanded, extensive practice and skill. New Zealand’s players were fit and physical, and, to many, the perfect illustration of the kind of man the colony could create. The rugby player was the man that colonial New Zealanders believed they were, and his success was their success.

This was because rugby in New Zealand had absorbed the culture of the colony as a whole, rather than trying to maintain British norms of play, and reflected back on the colony what it wanted to see in itself. The pioneer spirit of New Zealand defined the way they played rugby.

Thus, when the New Zealand team tore through Britain’s sides in 1905, it was said to have “aroused the greatest enthusiasm among all classes of the community.” This enthusiasm lasts even today, and even modern members of the All Blacks still remember and idolise the “Originals” as working- class pioneers. In 1996, the biographer of the All Black forward and captain Sir Brian Lochore, who played from 1963 to 1970, explained that Brian “would have been […] a young farmer of the 1890s, a pioneer breaking the land with horse and plough […] And if that meant being a 1905 All Black that would have been just fine with him too. Pioneering in farming and rugby would have suited him.” New Zealand’s players and fans, even today, see themselves as farmer pioneers. They are virile and physical, and the men in the black jerseys are living embodiments of the strength of the nation.

Rugby rose to prominence in colonial New Zealand because it was the sport that best reflected the spirit of the colony’s people. Rugby as it was played and organised in the colony reflected the working-class, provincially-minded, and pioneer-spirited ethos of the society. More physical and innovative play, combined with a strong desire to win at all costs, assured its ascendance. Rugby provided an outlet for colonial pride, and the success of the team that toured Britain in 1905 represented the virility the colony believed it possessed. The New Zealanders were playing to win.

Today, though modern New Zealand is more than lumber and sheep farming, the pioneer spirit lives on, and whenever the All Blacks take the field, the nation still urges them on, demanding that they play the national game to win.

Patrick

Patrick Silloway

Patrick Silloway is a law student at the Walter F. George School of Law at Mercer University in the United States. In 2012, he completed an honours thesis on the history of rugby culture in New Zealand at the University of Georgia.

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