New Zealand’s first game of rugby
The crowd of Nelsonians gathered at The Botanics one May day in 1870 had no idea that they were witnessing the birth of a New Zealand tradition, rugby.....
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The first recognised and recorded game of rugby played in New Zealand took place on Saturday, May 14, 1870 between a Nelson College side and the Nelson Football Club. 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, brought to New Zealand by Charles Monro.1
The term football was used to cover many versions of a team game in which a ball was kicked. The move into rugby is said to have come when a student of Rugby School in England first picked up the ball and ran with it in 1823.2 This crucial difference was adopted first by the school, and then universally, apparently because the school was the first to publish its rules, in 1845.3
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Charles Monro, son of the then Speaker of the New Zealand Parliament, Sir David Monro, has been termed the “father of New Zealand rugby”.4 He played rugby as a student at Christ College, Finchley, England, and introduced the rules to the Nelson Football Club in January 1870. He suggested a match be played against Nelson College, whose headmaster, Rev. F.C. Simmons, was himself a former student of Rugby School, as were his two predecessor principals. This led to the historic match four months later.5
Each team had 18 players, a number agreed by the captains before the match, made up of 10 forwards, three half-backs, three three-quarters and two fullbacks.6 The college team was decked out in tight-fitting shirts and blue caps, while the “town” team sported street clothes, having no particular uniform.7
The Colonist of May 17 reported the “football” match, describing attributes of the game that signalled its difference from the traditional versions of football. “Now some player runs with it (the ball, apparently oval) 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.” Later in the report, readers were told “the ball is ‘touched down’ behind the goal.”8
The town team won the game two - nil and everyone went home, apparently unaware of the significance of the spectacle: the first game of rugby in New Zealand had just been played.
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But, while the 1870 game is the first recognised game of rugby in the country, there are indications in the 1909 Nelson College Register of a rugby-like game being played as early as 1860. At this time the college was in temporary premises in Manuka Street, just four years after its establishment.
Students were taught the new game by two Anglican clergymen in Nelson at the time, Robert Codrington and Henry Turton, both Rugby School old boys. Records of the 1860 match, by a Nelson College old boy using the pen name “Scrum”, refer to “[players] down like ninepins” and “[the ball] over the bar”. This indicates a game like the one played at Rugby at the time. This sport did not become popular until a much later date,9 however.
It was much later that the game played in Nelson on 14 May 1870 game was officially recognised as the first organised game of rugby in New Zealand. It was the first game, officially recorded , which used the full rugby rules introduced by Monro, and also the oval ball. Earlier games may have been like rugby, but probably did not apply all the new rules and probably used a round ball. Nelson is generally agreed to be the birthplace of New Zealand rugby.10
Re-enactment of the first game of Rugby, 2011
As part of the Rugby World Cup Game On Festival in 2011, a re-enactment of the first game of Rugby was organised by Nelson City Council. The 18 a-side game, played at the Botanics on 20th September, 2011 re-enacted the original match between Nelson College and the Nelson Rugby Club. The Rugby Club team, captained by Chris Pugh, included 15 current players and 10 retired players; the Nelson College team was their current First XV. The game was played according to the "Rugby Laws"[PDF] for 1870, as introduced by Charles Monro.
Watch the game on Youtube.
Updated: Apr 14, 2020
Sources used in this story
- Turley, A. (1996). They Gave Us Rugby, Nelson, N.Z.: Nelson College, p.18,19,21.
- Turley (1996), p.7.
- Williams , T. (1999). 100 Great Moments in New Zealand Rugby, Auckland, N.Z. : David Ling Publishing.
- Turley (1996), p.14.
- ‘Football Match’ (1870, 18 May), The Nelson Examiner, p.3.
- Williams, p.9.
- Turley (1996). pp,18-19.
- Turley (1996), p.19,20,22.
- Turley, A. (2008). Rugby-The Pioneer Years, How Rugby Captured the Heart of a Nation, Auckland, N.Z.: Harper Collins, p.58-60.
- Palenski, R. (2015) Rugby: a New Zealand history. Auckland: Auckland University Press, p.28
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Further sources - New Zealand’s first game of rugby
- Akers, C. (2008) Monro : the life and times of the man who gave New Zealand rugby. C. Akers.
- Nelson Bays Rugby Football Union.(1985). Centenary Nelson Rugby Football Union, now amalgamated to form Nelson Bays Rugby Football Union: 1885-1985. Nelson Bays Rugby Football Union.
- Chester, R., Palenski, R., McMillan, N., (2005, 4th ed.). The Encyclopedia of New Zealand Rugby, Auckland, N.Z.: Hachette Livre.
- Palenski, R. (2015) Rugby: a New Zealand history. Auckland: Auckland University Press
- Reed, W.A. ,Swan, A.C. (1969). 100 Years of Rugby – the Birth and Evolution of our National Game, The Story of Nelson Rugby Football Club 1870-1969. Nelson Rugby Football Club.
- Swan, A.C. (1992 fasc. ed). History of New Zealand Rugby Football. Moa Publications.
- Turley, A. (1996). They Gave Us Rugby. Nelson College.
- Turley, A. (2009). Rugby-The Pioneer Years, How Rugby Captured the Heart of a Nation. Harper Collins.
- Williams , T. (1999). 100 Great Moments in New Zealand Rugby.David Ling Publishing.
- Akers, C. (2012) Charles Monro: James Jenkins Lecture, 2010. Nelson Historical Society Journal 7(4), p.45
- Crick, C. (2010, May) Going global on planet oval. Wild Tomato, 46, p. 48-53
- Football. (1870, May 16). The Nelson Evening Mail, p.2.
News of the day. (1870, May 17). Colonist. p.3.
- Historical Rugby Milestones 1870s. (2007). Retrieved 28 November 2008, from RugbyFootballHistory.com,
- Ministry for Culture and Heritage (2016). First game of rugby played in NZ:14 May 1870. https://nzhistory.govt.nz/page/first-game-rugby-played-nz
- Nelson Rugby Football Club. (2011). First game of Rugby Re-enactment. http://www.nelsonrugbyfootballclub.co.nz/galleries/first-game-of-rugby-re-enactment/
- Rugby Football Union History – New Zealand Encyclopedia 1966. History of the New Zealand Rugby Football Union. Retrieved 28 November 2008. http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/english/12
- A C Swan. (1948). First game of rugby in New Zealand. In The History of New Zealand Rugby Football Vol. 1 1870-1945. A H & A W Reed. Pp. 1 – 3. Retrieved from the New Zealand Rugby Museum http://rugbymuseum.co.nz/tdih-may-14-1870-first-game-of-rugby-in-new-zealand/
Visit sites associated with the first game of rugby played in New Zealand
The Botanics Reserve
- Situated on the corner of Hardy Street East and Milton Street in The Wood, Nelson. A stone cairn and information board (shaped like a rugby ball and posts) commemorating the first rugby game played in New Zealand are located in the reserve beside the sports pavilion. Retrieved 28 November 2008. http://www.nelsoncitycouncil.co.nz/centre-of-nz/
- Waimea Road, Nelson. Beside the main driveway off Hampden Street and on the grass beside Rutherford House is a bronze rugby ball set on a stone plinth. It commemorates Charles Monro’s introduction of rugby football to New Zealand and the first game played at The Botanics. https://www.nelsoncollege.school.nz/vtour/index.htm
The Nelson Rugby Football Club