Rugby History In NZ

Rugby is a popular sport played with an oval ball by two teams consisting of 13 or 15 players per team. Rugby Union teams consist of 15 players while Rugby League teams consist of 13 players. The history of rugby can be traced back to the Roman game of Harpastum, which involves ball handling. Rugby is the name of a small town in Warwickshire, England where the modern game of rugby has its origins.

Although rugby originated in England, it has now spread to Australia, South Africa, India, France, England, and New Zealand. The sport has several international competitions hosted worldwide, like the Rugby World Cup and Rugby Sevens. Besides that, it has different leagues worldwide, like the Top 14, Premiership, European Champions Cup, United Rugby Championship, and Super Rugby.

This page will trace rugby history from the early days of the sport till now. We’ll also explore Rugby World Cup History, Rugby Union History, and the development of Rugby Union.

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Origins of Rugby

Rugby is thought to have been born in 1823 when one of the pupils from Rugby School in Warwickshire, England first took the ball in his hands and ran with it. This very act originated the distinctive feature of the rugby game.

In the first games of rugby between 1715 and 1823, players were permitted to handle the ball, but no one was allowed to run with it in their hands towards the opposition’s goal. There was no fixed limit to the number of players per side and sometimes, there were hundreds in part. The innovation of running with the ball at Rugby School was introduced between 1820 and 1830, which made the game very fast-paced.

During the middle of the 19th century, football was still popular. The former students of the Rugby School started spreading their versions of football far and wide, changing the rules of the game wherever they went. For example, a former pupil, Arthur Pell, took the sport to university and founded a club at Cambridge University in 1839.

The Birth of Rugby Union

After the rugby football game started gaining popularity at several schools and clubs, a governing body was created in 1870, the Rugby Football Union. The Rugby Union approved the first official laws of the sport in 1871. Among these laws were strict rules against professionalism within the game. This led to the rise of the Rugby League. One of the issues that caused division then was that the Rugby League wanted to pay their players and the Rugby Union did not.

Spread and Development of Rugby Union

The Scottish Football Union was launched in 1873, the Irish Rugby Football Union in 1879, and the Welsh Rugby Union in 1881.
New Zealand and South Africa had a partnership in the 19th century, which led to the formation of a union. In South Africa, there was a merger between the non-racial South African Rugby Union and the White South African Rugby Commission. Australia formed the Northern Rugby Union and the Southern Rugby Union in 1874 and 1883. This led to the formation of the Australian Rugby Union in 1949.

The Argentina Rugby Union was founded in 1899, which led to the formation of other unions in other countries. These countries include the following:

  • Kenya – 1923
  • Spain – 1923
  • Tonga – 1923
  • Samoa – 1923
  • Fiji – 1913
  • Germany – 1900
  • USA – 1975
  • Canada – 1965
  • Japan – 1926

Introduction of Rugby League

In 1871, rugby was one code and many clubs were being formed, particularly in the northern part of England. Large crowds were attracted to major matches in Yorkshire, where matches in the Yorkshire Cup soon became major events.

Working-class players who played for teams up north found it difficult to play to their full potential as their time to train and play was limited by work commitments. So, rugby was divided in 1892.

In 1893, with tensions still rising between the North and South, Yorkshire clubs complained that the Southern clubs were overrepresented in the RFU (Rugby Football Union) Committee. The committee meetings were held in London at times, making it difficult for northern members to attend. The issue of allowing players to receive payments for missing work because of match commitments was put forward many times. The idea was voted down by the RFU (Rugby Football Union) and widespread suspensions of the Northern clubs and players began. This led to the Professional Football League, with success with 6 teams in the league from Northern England. This inspired the Northern Rugby Officials to form their Professional League.

How did Rugby Spread From the North of England to Australia and New Zealand?

The spread of rugby from England to New Zealand began when the All Blacks toured Britain where they witnessed how popular Northern Union Games were. It all started to come together when the New South Wales Football League organised Professional Rugby in Australia in 1907. Unsurprisingly, the Australian League played games under the Northern Union Rules.

Did You Know? New Zealand hosted the Rugby World Cup in 2011.

Players Switching Codes Between Union and League

These sports may be similar, but they are also different in terms of skills, specialities, and positions, with rugby union having specialist skills needed in most of the forward positions at the top level. You won’t find just anyone able to play Rugby League unless they are very physically gifted. Having extremely similar jobs across codes meant that players could switch between the Rugby League and Rugby Union. With the Law of Professionalism being on the Rugby League’s side and the slightly slower paced and less physically tasking game being offered on the Rugby Union’s side.

In 1995, after the Rugby World Cup in South Africa, the Rugby Union turned professional. As a result, several high-profile league players changed codes and the floodgates opened. Big-money players started moving to Rugby Union, especially in Australia, where Australian Rugby Union administrators appeared to be targeting League Internationals. Eventually, the flow of rugby players moving on big contracts to unions seemed to have stabilised. You might think it is the end of the Rugby League, but it turned out to be positive. The money gained from transfer fees was being used to fund the expansion of Rugby League games.

Both games have grown globally with Toronto joining the Bridge Rugby League System in 2017.

New Zealand Rugby History

The early settlers from Britain brought rugby into New Zealand in 1840. But, before then, the indigenous people of Maori in New Zealand had a sport similar to rugby – Ki-o-rahi.

New Zealand played its first official rugby match in Nelson, South Africa in 1870. Then, in 1884, New Zealand selected a representative rugby team, which toured different countries like Australia and New South Wales. Interestingly, this team had an unbeaten run throughout the tour.

Rugby became official when the New Zealand Rugby Union was launched in 1992 to control rugby’s activities at the national level. Then, in 1948, New Zealand Rugby became a member of the International Rugby Football Board. New Zealand Rugby was admitted as a board member alongside its South Africa counterpart and they were both given a seat on the board.

Did You Know? The Maori people in New Zealand influenced the game of rugby. Rugby is beyond sport for New Zealanders, it’s part of the Kiwi culture.

Evolution of the Laws and Rules

In 1845, three students at the Rugby Schools codified the rugby game. They sent 37 rules, which were printed as a Rule Book. Then, in 1868, Charles Burton Barrington introduced his Rugby Rules. The Rugby Football Union came into the picture on the 26th of January 1871 in London to regulate Rugby Rules. It set up a committee that formulated laws and not rules.

In April 1890, a judgement was ruled to formalise the Rugby International Board (IB). The new board held a meeting in 1892, where they discussed how to revise rugby laws.

Another important law that was included in the list of 1968-1969 laws was the replacement of injured players.

On May 5th, 2015, technical experts began to critique the laws of rugby games. This was as a result of the feedback submitted by unions.

International Competitions and Tournaments

Rugby has several competitions and tournaments hosted by different countries worldwide. They include the Olympics, Six Nations Championships, Rugby Sevens, and Rugby World Cup.

Six Nations Championships

This tournament consisted of countries like Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and England. France and Italy later joined the competition to make it the Six Nations Championships.

Rugby Sevens

This competition allows only 7 players in each team.

Rugby World Cup

This is the official tournament of the Rugby Union held every 4 years in different countries.

Did You Know? The first Rugby World Cup Match was played between New Zealand and Australia in 1987. New Zealand won the match and lifted the Webb Ellis Cup for the first time.

Future Challenges and Growth of Rugby

Rugby has seen remarkable growth since its early days. It is one of the top live sports in both France and the UK. According to The Guardian, “An average of 11.5 million people in France watched France vs Uruguay.” This goes to show that the sport has spread across different countries of the world.

Here are some of the future challenges that might affect the growth of rugby:

  • Financial sustainability for the sport
  • Player welfare
  • Balancing tradition with innovation
  • The challenge of climate change

Final Thoughts About Rugby History

Rugby is undoubtedly one of the top sports loved by fans worldwide. It sprung from a small school in England and has now grown internationally.

Rugby League history began in 1895 when 22 clubs agreed to form the Northern Union, which is now the Rugby League we all know today. While the Rugby Union wasn’t happy with the new union and punished all those involved, that didn’t stop the Rugby League from booming and getting the support of fans. It became obvious that the two codes of rugby were going to co-exist.

Rugby features different international competitions and tournaments. They include the Olympics, Six Nations Championships, Rugby Sevens, and Rugby World Cup. Every sport has its challenges, and rugby is no exception. Some of the challenges of rugby sport are climate change, player welfare, and financial sustainability.

Rugby History FAQs

Here are some questions and answers on the history of rugby:

Where did rugby come from?

Rugby came from Rugby School, Warwickshire, England.

How did rugby come to New Zealand?

Rugby got into New Zealand with the help of early settlers after the country’s colonisation in 1840.

Which year did the Rugby Union turn professional?

The Rugby Union turned professional in 1995 after the Rugby World Cup in South Africa.

Who regulates the sport?

The Rugby Football Union is the governing body that regulates rugby.

What are the popular rugby competitions?

Some popular rugby competitions are the Rugby World Cup, Rugby Sevens, and Six Nations Championships.

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Lucius Boehm

Sports Expert

Lucius Boehm, our sports expert at Betkiwi, is a University of Auckland graduate with a degree in Sport, Health and Physical Education. He's honed his expertise over 10 years in the gambling industry, earning a reputation as one of New Zealand's top sports gambling specialists. Lucius enjoys analyzing sports trends and playing rugby in his spare time.

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