Rugby in New Zealand

The first rugby match

The first rugby match played in New Zealand took place in Nelson on Saturday 14 May, 1870. Rugby was adopted as the winter sport of choice for the Nelson Football Club at the suggestion of Charles Monro, who encountered rugby rules when at school in England. Nelson College also adopted rugby and the two agreed to meet at the Botanical Reserve. The Nelson Football Club was victorious by two goals to none.

That first match was an 18-a-side affair, the number of players on each side being a matter for agreement between team captains. Each team had 10 forwards, three halfbacks, three three-quarters and two fullbacks (it wasn’t until 1877 that 15 a-side was confirmed and then only for International matches).


The New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU) was formed in 1892 to administer the game of rugby union at the national level.

At that time, the national union was known as the New Zealand Rugby Football Union or NZRFU. The name was officially shortened in 2006 with the removal of the world “Football”.

After the first rugby match the game spread quickly and in September 1875 the first interprovincial match took place in Dunedin, between Auckland Clubs and Dunedin Clubs. In 1879, the first Provincial Unions were formed in Canterbury and Wellington.

On Saturday 16 April 1892, in a meeting held in Wellington, the New Zealand Rugby Union was formed. Inaugural members were the Provincial Unions of Auckland, Hawke’s Bay, Manawatu, Marlborough, Nelson, South Canterbury, Taranaki, Wairarapa, Wanganui and Wellington. At the time, three major South Island Provincial Unions – Canterbury, Otago and Southland – resisted the central authority of the NZRU.

The NZRU’s strongest advocate and first secretary, Ernest Hoben, was a driving force behind the formation of the national union. In recognition of Hoben’s contribution, the Ernest Hoben Room at the NZRU’s offices in Wellington now displays all 26 provincial jerseys alongside photos of past All Blacks teams and the names of every All Black in New Zealand rugby history.

In 1893, the NZRU formally adopted the black jersey as the national playing strip and selected the first NZRU-sanctioned national team, for a tour of Australia. However, the earlier New Zealand team selected to tour New South Wales in 1884 is recognised as a New Zealand team and its players recognised as All Blacks.

By 1895, with the additions of the Bush, Canterbury, Horowhenua, Otago, Poverty Bay, Southland and West Coast unions, the NZRU was considered to be a complete and united collection of all New Zealand rugby players. However, the New Zealand rugby map would be repeatedly redrawn in the following decades (see NZRU Member Unions).

At the Annual Meeting in 1921, the NZRU elected its first Life Member, George Dixon, manager of the 1905 “Originals” All Blacks and the NZRU’s first Chairman, appointed in 1904. In another innovation, provincial delegates met prior to the Annual Meeting to arrange representative fixtures for the season ahead, introducing a new level of national coordination.

In 1948, the NZRU was admitted as a member of the International Rugby Board (IRB), at the same time giving up its representation on England’s Rugby Football Union (RFU) Committee. The NZRU had made its first bid for IRB membership in 1908.

In 1995, following the Rugby World Cup tournament in South Africa, international rugby turned professional with the IRB’s repeal of all amateurism regulations. For the first time, the NZRU negotiated with and contracted New Zealand rugby players.

The NZRU also joined with the national unions of Australia and South Africa to form SANZAR, which sold the television rights for major southern hemisphere rugby competitions and helped to build the commercial foundation on which professional rugby is based. SANZAR remains an important rugby organisation and organises the Investec Super Rugby and Investec Tri Nations competitions.



Initially, the NZRU was governed by a committee of delegates from Provincial Unions. From 1894, this ever-growing committee was replaced by a Wellington-based management committee comprised of seven elected union representatives. In 1937, the governing body was expanded to create two entities: the ruling NZRU Council and an executive committee, which handled day-to-day matters.

In 1986, the NZRU introduced the three zones (North, Central and South) from which Council representatives are nominated. At the same time, the executive committee was replaced by an administration committee. Ten years later, the Council was replaced by the current NZRU Board, which included independent Board members (with no Provincial Union affiliations) for the first time.

Administrative responsibilities were initially held by Honorary Secretaries, starting with Ernest Hoben in 1892, followed by Secretaries, from 1907. Since 1990, the NZRU has been managed by a Chief Executive Officer.