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Regional rugby

Page 21 – Tasman rugby

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The Tasman Rugby Union at the top of the South Island is New Zealand′s newest provincial union. Established in 2006, it brought together the Nelson Bays and Marlborough unions. In 2010 Tasman claimed its greatest scalp with a nailbiting 27-25 win over perennial powerhouse Canterbury. In 2019 Tasman won the ITM premiership, the trophy awarded to the best provincial team in the country.

A game between Nelson Club and Nelson College on Saturday 14 May 1870 was one of the first played in New Zealand under rugby rules. The Nelson Rugby Union was founded in 1885. Golden Bay-Motueka was created in 1920 and merged with Nelson in 1969 to become Nelson Bays.   

The Marlborough Rugby Union was established in 1888. In 1973 Marlborough pulled off one of the great Ranfurly Shield upsets by defeating Canterbury 13–6 to begin the region’s only shield tenure.

Nelson Bays amalgamated with neighbouring Marlborough following the restructuring of New Zealand’s provincial championship in 2006. The combined team (marketed as the Makos) has competed with credit in the ITM Cup, winning the second-tier championship competition – and promotion to the premiership – in 2013. Nelson Bays and Marlborough, now sub-unions of the Tasman Rugby Union, continue to compete separately with Buller and West Coast for the Seddon Shield.

Tasman, along with West Coast, Buller, Mid-Canterbury, South Canterbury and Canterbury is part of the Crusaders Super rugby franchise, which has won more Super rugby titles than any other. Thanks to this link a number of All Blacks have been loaned to Tasman to bolster its playing strength, including Chris Jack, propping brothers Owen and Ben Franks, and Rico Gear.

At the start of the 2015 season, Robbie Malneek had played a record 93 games for Tasman, while Marty Banks had scored 343 points.

In the beginning…

The Nelson Football Club was formed in 1868. At first its members used a round ball and mixed association football (the ‘Dribbling Game’) with Victorian Rules, the popular game brought over from the Australian goldfields.

Charles Monro, the ‘father of New Zealand rugby’, was born near Nelson. In 1867 he was sent to England to complete his education at Christ’s College, in Finchley near London. Here he was introduced to Rugby School’s version of football, the rules of which had first been published in 1845. Monro returned to Nelson in 1870 with a love of the game, four oval Gilbert balls and a copy of the 1868 rule book. Within months he had spread the word amongst his curious contemporaries and a game of rugby football was organised.

On 14 May 1870 the Nelson Football Club or Town side (with Monro himself playing) took to the field at the Botanic Reserve to face a team from Nelson College. The College side was coached by the principal, the Reverend Francis Simmons, an old boy of Rugby School. His three predecessors were also old Rugbeians, and school records suggest that a round-ball form of rugby had been introduced by George Heppel in about 1860. For the 1870 match the captains agreed on 18 players a side. The game kicked off in front of a crowd of around 200 men and women. A local newspaper report described it as a noisy rushing affair, with the ball being chased by all and sundry. It was ‘all shove, pull, rush and roll about in a confused mess until “down” is cried and away goes the ball again.’ Nelson Town won the game 2–nil. In September Nelson travelled to Wellington for the first interprovincial rugby game, which they won 2–1. The spread of rugby had begun.

Rugby in Nelson

With the number of players and clubs growing, the Nelson Rugby Union was formed in 1885. Before merging with Golden Bay-Motueka in 1969 Nelson had two unsuccessful tilts at the Ranfurly Shield, going down 35–3 to Hawke’s Bay in 1924 and 31–14 to Taranaki in 1959.

Nelson wing three-quarter Frank Snodgrass made his All Black debut against New South Wales in 1923. It was five years before he represented his country again, against New South Wales and a West Coast-Buller invitational team. Team-mate Eric Snow played 16 times for his country, including the 1928 tour of South Africa and all three tests in Australia in 1929.

Nelson Bays made six unsuccessful shield challenges. The Bays enjoyed some success in the lower levels of the NPC, winning the third division in 1992 and the second division in 1999 and 2004. Nelson Bays’ sole All Black was fullback Trevor Morris, who played 23 games for his country, including three tests, in 1972 and 1973.

D.W. Mytton played 126 games for Nelson Bays, a union record. M.A. Milne′s record 536-point haul included a record 50 tries. Nelson Bays’ headquarters is at Nelson’s Trafalgar Park.

Rugby in Marlborough

The Marlborough Rugby Union was formed in 1888. Based at Blenheim’s Lansdowne Park, Marlborough (now a sub-union of Tasman) plays in a red strip made famous by its shock victory over Canterbury in the 1973 shield challenge. In the old NPC competition Marlborough won the South Island second division in 1978 and 1979, and the third division in 1997.

Ray Sutherland has played more games for Marlborough than any other player – 177. Ray and his younger brother Alan Sutherland were mainstays of Marlborough rugby in the 1960s and 70s. Alan was an All Black, and many felt Ray was desperately unlucky not to join him. Ray captained Marlborough for many years, including in the sensational Ranfurly Shield win over Canterbury in 1973. C.A.J. Forsyth’s 694 points remains the record for the union.

The day of the Red Devils

Those who question the value of the Ranfurly Shield often observe that it is generally passed from one ‘big union’ to the next. Games with the minnows are often seen as no more than a chance to warm up for the ‘real’ challenges. Marlborough’s challenge on 28 July 1973 put the lie to this.

Canterbury, with rock-hard and experienced players like All Blacks Alex (‘Grizz’) Wyllie and Fergie McCormick, were defending the Log o’ Wood for the third time in its current tenure and a routine victory was expected. Before the match Marlborough had already knocked over big-city opposition in Auckland and Otago, and the ‘Red Devils’ descended on Lancaster Park with a degree of confidence. In a masterstroke, All Black and Auckland legend Fred Allen was invited to speak to the team in the build-up to the challenge. Allen had played for Marlborough while stationed at Woodbourne airbase early in the Second World War. Following a second (taped) pep talk to the team from Allen just before the match, Marlborough (and All Black) forward Alan Sutherland felt ‘10 feet tall and invincible’.

In front of thousands of jubilant red-clad fans, the visitors took the lead 9–6 with eight minutes to go. Four minutes later Brian Ford scored Marlborough’s – and perhaps the shield’s – most famous try. Ford’s 70-m sprint for the line saw him break through three weak tackles before standing up the great Fergie McCormick. Marlborough showed the 13–6 victory was no flash in the pan by keeping the shield for a year with six successful defences.

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How to cite this page

Tasman rugby, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated