[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
fifty 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 nineteenth
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’.