The New Zealand Native Football Representatives’ tour of Britain is relatively unknown. The first New Zealand representative rugby team to tour beyond Australia, they played their first game in Britain on 3 October 1888. The title of ‘The Originals’ was bestowed on the next New Zealand rugby team to tour Britain, that of 1905/6, which arrived home to an official welcome befitting conquering heroes. But even though it was soon forgotten, the Natives′ tour was to have enduring significance for New Zealand rugby and society.
The Natives had originally been called New Zealand Māori. After five Pākehā (non-Māori) were selected to strengthen the touring party it was renamed by its promoter on the basis that all 26 team members were New Zealand-born. This was untrue: two of the ring-ins had been born overseas. Most of the team assembled at a training camp near Napier in May 1888, and they played their first match against Hawke’s Bay on 23 June. Before they left New Zealand they were condemned as a ‘poor team’ who wouldn’t beat the top local club sides. But after they slipped quietly back into the country a year later, their play was praised as a ‘fine exhibition of what several months of combination and practice will do’.
By the time the Natives dispersed at Auckland in August 1889, they had played a staggering 107 rugby matches in New Zealand, Australia and Great Britain, winning 78 of them – plus 11 fixtures played under Australian Rules! For much of that time no more than 20 of the touring party were fit, forcing those who were into a playing schedule that no modern team would contemplate.
A major book on the Natives’ tour by historian Greg Ryan, Forerunners of the All Blacks (Canterbury University Press, 1993), provides a detailed study of the tour, and anyone interested in further information on the topic should consult this book. This feature draws extensively on Dr Ryan’s research and insights. Material from Forerunners of the All Blacks has been used with the kind permission of Dr Ryan. Additional material has been written by David Green.