First game of rugby played in NZ?

14 May 1870

Recent replay of New Zealand's first game of rugby
Recent replay of New Zealand's first game of rugby (Jock Phillips - Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand)

Around 200 people were on hand at Nelson’s Botanic Reserve to watch a game of football played under Rugby rules. Nelson College played the Nelson Football Club, with 18 players on each side. The ‘town’ team, wearing ‘street clothes’, beat the students 2-0.

The term football was used to cover many versions of a team game in which a ball was kicked, and sometimes carried and passed by hand. Charles Monro had been sent to Christ’s College at Finchley in England to complete his schooling. While there he played the version of football associated with Rugby School. On his return to Nelson, Monro suggested that the local football club give Rugby rules a go.

The report of the match in the Colonist noted the key differences from other versions of football:

Now some player runs with it [the ball], and a general scrimmage ensues; it is all shove, pull, rush, and roll about in a confused mass till ‘down’ is cried, and away the ball goes again till perchance it gets in touch or caught.

It was long thought that Monro introduced rugby to New Zealand. Claims for ‘firsts’ can be problematic, and in 2020 historian Ron Palenski discovered that several games had been played under Rugby rules in Whanganui in 1869, the first on 19 June. Earlier contenders may yet emerge as more contemporary newspapers and other primary sources are digitised and become freely accessible.

In any event, Monro organised the first interprovincial rugby match, between Nelson and Wellington, later in 1870. Over the next few years rugby clubs sprang up around the colony. In 1879 the first provincial unions were formed (in Canterbury and Wellington) to administer and control the playing of rugby in their region. These were followed by a number of other unions, and in 1892 a New Zealand Rugby Football Union (NZRFU) was formed to run the game in the colony.

Community contributions

1 comment has been posted about First game of rugby played in NZ?

What do you know?

Paul Wilding

Posted: 27 May 2020

the photo of reanactment is incorrect - the College played in their school colours; blue stripes. I know this because I researched/ painted "The College versus Town". This 2 metre wide painting hangs in Nelson College and it is formally recognised by NZR as the "official" painting. I am happy to supply digital image for your use (not printing to sell) free of charge.