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All Blacks and New Zealand Rugby History

The first game of rugby played in New Zealand took place before the New Zealand Rugby Football Union was formed. From early European times, football in various forms had been played but from the description of the game in local papers, it is certain that the match between Nelson College and Nelson football club, played on 14 May 1870, was played under rugby rules.

Credit for the introduction of rugby to New Zealand goes to Charles John Monro, son of Sir David Monro, Speaker in the House of Representatives from 1860 to 1870. Charles Monro, who was born at Waimea East, was sent to Christ's College, Finchley in England to complete his education and while there he learned the rugby game. On his return to Nelson he suggested that the local football club try out the rugby rules. The game must have appealed to the club members for they decided to adopt it.

A visit to Wellington by Monro later in 1870 resulted in a game being arranged between Nelson and Wellington. This match was played at Petone on 12 September and was won by Nelson by two goals to one.

In 1871 the game became organised in Wellington and it had spread to Wanganui by the following year. Auckland adopted rugby in 1873 while Hamilton followed suit in 1874. By 1875 the game had become established all over the colony and a team representing Auckland clubs undertook a two-week southern tour. Matches were played (and lost) against teams from Wellington, Dunedin, Christchurch, Nelson and Taranaki.

First New Zealand Unions

In 1879, unions were formed in Canterbury and Wellington, indicating that the game was becoming more formally organised. Other unions soon followed but it was not until 1892 that the New Zealand Rugby Football Union was formed to administer the game at national level.

Even before the New Zealand Rugby Football Union came into being, overseas tours had been arranged. In 1882 the first rugby team from overseas visited New Zealand when New South Wales toured both islands late in the season. In 1884, a New Zealand team, wearing blue jerseys with a gold fern, returned the visit, winning all its matches in New South Wales. New South Wales sent another side to New Zealand in 1886 and the first British team to visit arrived in 1888. The New Zealand Native Team became the first from the colony to visit Britain when it undertook the longest tour ever in 1888-89. The first national side to take the field under the auspices of the New Zealand Rugby Football Union did so in 1893, when 10 games were played on a tour of Australia.

Since 1893, New Zealand has sent teams to every major rugby country and to some countries where the game is very minor. At the same time, the NZRFU has been host to players from all corners of the world. The game is spreading all the time and although rugby players in some countries may not be too sure where New Zealand is, it is certain they would have heard of the All Blacks.

(Source: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand Rugby , 1981)

The Beginnings of World Dominance

Tours of foreign countries early in the twentieth century were long and arduous. Players spent, literally, years away from their families. The personal sacrifices of such men, and the close team culture that developed over the course of such tours, began to have a magical effect on our rugby. National representative honours were becoming hugely respected, as much for the acknowledgement of those sacrifices and the recognition of the pride involved in making them as for the outstanding winning record we were developing.

The 1905 "All Blacks" swept through Britain and Europe displaying a style of rugby that took the other nations by surprise. New Zealand's long history of innovation in the game really began here, as a team from "the colonies" had never before handed out thrashings of that order to any "Home Unions", let alone showed such a combination of ferocity and grace. The ball was kept in hand, and passed for the fastest to run with rather than kicked for them to chase. Shots at goal were declined in favour of spinning it wide or crashing it forward. Fear of the black jersey was born.

Other sides carried on that dominance, as teams led by the Brownlie brothers in the twenties and thirties kept our tradition of innovation alive. George Nepia is still regarded by those who remember him as the greatest player not just of that era but of all time, and set a standard of excellence for future generations of players to aspire to. Teams of New Zealand soldiers in the second World War were instrumental in bridging the gap between the two halves of the century. Most able-bodied New Zealanders enlisted for army service, but no matter which part of the world they found themselves in they would still pick sides during breaks in the fighting and play the game they loved.

The Modern Era

The All Blacks had become the most feared opponent in the sport. Fierce rivalries existed between all the rugby powers, but the men wearing the black jerseys with the silver fern and delivering the formal challenge of the haka had a psychological edge on the opposition whenever they stepped onto the field.

Men like Colin Meads, Don Clarke, Waka Nathan and Wilson Whineray did nothing to dispel such thinking. The sixties were a decade where New Zealand's pre-eminence was unchallenged. Meads was a sinewy and raw-boned draft-horse of a man, whose outstanding lineout jumping complemented superb skills in open play. He was as famous for his uncompromising attitude as for these skills. Waka Nathan was a bullet off the back of the lineout or the side of the scrum, who terrorised inside backs all over the world and shared that same attitude. Don Clarke was the rock required at fullback, who never missed a tackle and, if the opposition infringed inside their own half, could be relied upon to deliver an almost guaranteed three points. Wilson Whineray commanded the respect of them all, and captained them to wins wherever they played.

All Black teams since then have proudly continued the legacy. Players like Sid Going, Bryan Williams, Ian Kirkpatrick, Fergie McCormick, Graham Mourie, Bruce Robertson, Buck Shelford, Stu Wilson, Joe Stanley, Sean Fitzpatrick, John Kirwan, Grant Fox, Michael Jones, Zinzan Brooke... all have given their heart and soul on New Zealand's behalf. The sport of rugby now has a World Cup tournament, held every four years since 1987, and New Zealand's success in only one of these so far is no real indication of our ongoing strength. The game here remains an integral part of our culture and identity as a nation, and the unchecked passion we have for the sport will ensure that the future of All Black rugby is as innovative, uncompromising, dedicated and successful as it ever was.

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Last updated 10 Oct 2018