Natives' Rugby Tour, 1888-89

Page 3 – Maori and rugby

Māori and rugby

Several kinds of football, including early forms of rugby, association football and Australian Rules, were played in New Zealand from the 1860s. While these were initially associated with the settler elite (rugby was adopted at Nelson College in 1870) and the military (frontier Armed Constabulary units with time on their hands played football in the early 1870s), other colonists accustomed to hard physical labour were also soon chasing inflated pigs’ bladders. From early colonial times Māori had eagerly competed against Pākehā in boats and on horses. Cricket seemed too arcane – what was the point of a game which often had no winner after a whole day’s play? – but football appealed to Maori.

The first Māori rugby player whose name is on record was Wirihana, who turned out for Wanganui Country in 1872 in a 20-a-side fixture against Wanganui Town. The scoreless match was replayed and eventually abandoned after the Town captain led his men from the field in protest against their rivals’ ‘rough-and-tumble’ tactics). While some all-Maori clubs were formed, such as Kiri Kiri near Thames, mixed-race teams were more common in areas like Poverty Bay that had substantial Māori populations.

Tribes that had allied themselves with the Crown during the New Zealand Wars of the 1860s seem to have taken up rugby sooner than other iwi. With this proviso, it does appear that the teams which represented the provincial unions that were formed from 1879 were selected on the basis of merit.

Jack Taiaroa and Joseph Warbrick were key members of the first representative New Zealand team, which toured New South Wales in 1884. Taiaroa was the son of the politician H.K. Taiaroa. A halfback, he had apparently played for his province at the age of 15; his ‘brilliant runs’ saw him singled out in advertisements for matches.

How to cite this page

'Maori and rugby', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 10-Apr-2019