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Nelson, 'birthplace of New Zealand rugby'

One of New Zealand's first rugby matches was played at Nelson in May 1870, at the suggestion of Charles Monro, who had played the game as a student in England. In 2020, historian Ron Palenski revealed that several matches were played under Rugby rules in Whanganui in 1869. Rugby spread rapidly throughout the country in the 1870s, and Māori were quick to embrace the game. It was especially popular in small rural towns.


[1870s News Reporter (actor’s voice)] Now some player runs with it (the ball, apparently oval) and a general scrimmage ensues: it is all shove, push, rush and roll about in a confused mass. A lot of spectators assembled to witness the game, and seemed to enjoy it as much as the players themselves, laughing heartily at the various spills, etc. 

[Narrator] The first rugby game played in New Zealand took place in Nelson’s Observation Hill reserve. Situated on the edge of the city beside the Maitai River, this reserve also includes the botanical gardens. It takes its name from New Zealand’s central survey point, placed on top of Observation Hill in 1877.

The game of rugby originated at Rugby School in England, where it was common for over 300 people to be involved in a rough game of ‘big side football’. The object of this game was to drive the ball over the opponents’ line. This gave the opportunity to try to kick a goal, hence the origin of the ‘try’.

In 1823, William Ellis broke with convention by running forward carrying the ball, and the game of rugby was born. In New Zealand, cricket, soccer and Australian Rules football was established before rugby.

Charles Monro, who has been called the father of New Zealand rugby, played the game as a public school student in England. He introduced the game to the Nelson Town Football Club and suggested a match be played against Nelson College. The college, whose headmaster was a former student of Rugby School, agreed. On the 14th of May 1870, New Zealand’s first official game of rugby took place, nearly 50 years after the game was invented.

[Reporter] A crowd of around 200 including a fair sprinkling of ladies and a goodly number of the opposite sex gathered at the Botanics to watch a new version of football.

The Collegians came on with a rush, and for some time had it all their own way, till their opponents warmed to their work, and then, bit by bit, the ball was slowly forced behind the College goal, and being touched down, the Town had a kick fifteen yards out, and notwithstanding the charge of the College boys, Drew succeeded in kicking a goal. 

[Narrator] The Nelson Town team won the first game two goals to nil. At the time, no one realised the historical significance of this event, and neither of the local papers mentioned that it was actually a rugby match.

After that first game, rugby spread quickly throughout New Zealand. It started as a sport of an elite group – men educated at rugby-playing public schools in England. But it soon became popular with New Zealanders from all walks of life, including Māori, who were playing in teams as early as 1876.

New Zealand’s conditions, with its rough paddocks which became muddy in winter, favoured rugby far more than soccer. And unlike cricket, rugby didn’t require a lot of equipment. All you needed was a pig’s bladder and a paddock.

Rugby became particularly popular in small rural towns. And a highly physical masculine game was perfect for the rough pioneer society that New Zealand was in the late 19th century.

In the early days, numbers of players in a team varied. There was no set length for a game, and often teams would play soccer or Australian rules in one half and rugby in the other.

During the 1880s points were awarded for tries in order to encourage running and passing rather than kicking. By the 1890s, rugby became even more regulated and ‘civilised’. Rules were enforced to cut out kicking your other opponent, teams were set at 15 players, referees with whistles were introduced, and uniforms became established.

In 1892 the New Zealand Rugby Union was formed. At this time, only about 20 years after it was introduced to the country, New Zealand had over 5,000 rugby players. Rugby had truly become ‘New Zealand’s national game’.


Manatū Taonga - Ministry for Culture and Heritage, 2011. Part of the Roadside Stories series

Archival audio sourced from Radio New Zealand Sound Archives
Sound files may not be reused without permission from Radio New Zealand Sound Archives (Reference number DCDR 71A)

How to cite this page

Nelson, 'birthplace of New Zealand rugby', URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated