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Natives' Rugby Tour, 1888-89

Page 9 – Rugby and society

The aftermath of the tour

What effect did the Natives’ tour have on rugby and on wider New Zealand society? Along with a privately organised British tour to New Zealand in 1888, it showed that New Zealand men could compete on equal terms with representatives of the imperial centre at rugby in a way they were embarrassingly unable to do at cricket. These tours stimulated the creation of the New Zealand Rugby Football Union in 1892: how else could fully representative teams be chosen and future tours organised? The fact that Eyton had failed to make a significant profit also made future private ventures less attractive.

Players like Tom Ellison brought back tactical lessons from Britain which encouraged further innovation here. Most notable were the invention of the positions of ‘wing forward’ (a second halfback posted to disrupt opponents’ moves around the scrum) and ‘five-eighths’ (links between the ‘halves’ and the ‘threequarters’ who enabled greater emphasis on attacking back play). New Zealand rugby players have exercised the utmost creativity in their interpretations of the rules ever since.

The societal implications are harder to trace. But in what other 19th-century European colony did a member of an indigenous race (Ellison) captain the first national team in the most important sport? This was in the same year (1893) that Māori women won the vote alongside Pākehā women. In 1892. New Zealand had gained its first Māori Cabinet minister, James Carroll. Within a few years, Māori were receiving – however grudgingly and inequitably – old-age pensions and the fruits of other Liberal social legislation.

At the end of the decade, in an ironic twist on rugby′s intended role in disciplining young empire-builders for battle, many Māori were accepted into contingents heading for the South African War which the British army had decreed would be whites-only. All this was far from equality. But it did show that racial amalgamation did not always and inevitably work to the disadvantage of those with whom the colonisers sought to ‘amalgamate’, in sport or beyond it.

How to cite this page

Rugby and society, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated