Rugby: A New Zealand History

Rugby: A New Zealand History

by Ron Palenski


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Rugby is New Zealand’s national sport. From the grand tour by the 1888 Natives to the upcoming 2015 World Cup, from games in the North African desert in the Second World War to matches behind barbed wire during the 1981 Springbok tour, from grassroots club rugby to heaving crowds outside Eden Park, Lancaster Park, Athletic Park or Carisbrook, New Zealanders have made rugby their game. In this book, historian and former journalist Ron Palenski tells the full story of rugby in New Zealand for the first time. It is a story of how the game travelled from England and settled in the colony, how Maori and later Pacific players made rugby their own, how battles over amateurism and apartheid threatened the sport, how national teams, provinces and local clubs shaped it. The story of rugby is New Zealand’s story. Rooted in extensive research in public and private archives and newspapers, and highly illustrated with many rare photographs and ephemera, this book is the defining history of rugby in a land that has made the game its own.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781869408367
Publisher: Auckland University Press
Publication date: 11/01/2015
Pages: 460
Product dimensions: 9.10(w) x 10.70(h) x 1.60(d)

About the Author

Dunedin-based Ron Palenski ONZM is a noted and prolific author, journalist and historian. Palenski has a PhD from the University of Otago and his acclaimed thesis ‘The Making of New Zealanders – The Evolution of National Identity in the Nineteenth Century’ forms the basis of his book The Making of New Zealanders. Palenski has collaborated on biographies of significant All Blacks, from Brian Lochore through to Dan Carter, and his many other books include How We Saw the War; On This Day in New Zealand; Kiwi Battlefield; The Games; Our National Game: The Centennial History of the NZRFU; Key Moments in 20th Century: Sport; Profiles of Fame; The Jersey; Century In Black and Kiwi Milestones. He has won numerous awards for his sports writing and academic awards for history writing in 2005 and 2006.

Read an Excerpt


A New Zealand History

By Ron Palenski

Auckland University Press

Copyright © 2015 Ron Palenski
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-86940-836-7


A fork in the football road

The broad philosophy of football you can understand if you will. Come along with me a little nearer, and let us consider it together.

Among the crowd of about seven thousand at the Grange Road ground for the All Blacks' match against Cambridge University in November 1905 was a tall, thin man with a flourishing white moustache. His name was Herbert Giles and he was professor of Chinese at the university; a renowned sinologist, he gave his name to half of the accepted way then of rendering Chinese script into English, the Wade-Giles method. As he watched the All Blacks beat the university by 14 points to nil – a scoreline that set Cambridge feet a-dancing because it was not like the 47–0 thrashing delivered by the All Blacks to Oxford two days before – Giles cast his mind back more than two thousand years: 'I began to wonder if anyone would take an interest in, or even believe, the fact that football was played by the Chinese several centuries before Julius Caesar landed in Britain.'

The date of the New Zealand–Cambridge match was 9 November, a date of no special significance now but one that was then celebrated as the King's Birthday. The All Blacks after the match went back to London by train, where they had a semi-formal dinner put on by expatriate New Zealanders at the Trocadero restaurant in Shaftesbury Avenue followed by a show at the Palace Theatre. All that the players would have wanted, like players of any era, would have been to get back to their hotel, the Manchester, in Aldersgate in the City, because this was Thursday night and they had another game on the Saturday. In Cambridge, students celebrated long into the night, partly because of the unexpected low score against them and partly because of the expected high jinks associated with the annual holiday. The All Blacks' vice-captain, Billy Stead, recalled the excesses: 'About 2000 students, out to do any damage they can, are very difficult to control and, despite an extra hundred police imported for the occasion, they damaged property to the value of £300. As we left at 8pm, we only saw the start of proceedings.'

It is unlikely Giles would have seen any of the students' mayhem either. He much more likely would have gone home and started to compose, in his fertile mind at least, the article about the beginnings of football in pre-imperial China that was published in a magazine, The Nineteenth Century and After, the following January when the All Blacks were on their way to the last leg of their tour in North America.

There is a general belief, fostered by some histories, that football's origins were in ancient Greece and Rome. Giles winds the clock back still further. This is a history of the game in New Zealand, not a history of the game globally, but not to write about how and where the generic football was played would be akin to writing a general history of New Zealand without mentioning Britain. Games, like most things, evolved into today's form rather than being manufactured and presented in a finished state to an anticipatory populace.

Before delving too far into the ancient past, though, vocabulary needs to be clarified, particularly one word: football. Football, despite what soccer enthusiasts may say, is a generic term rather than the name of a specific game. In various versions and with various spellings, football had been played for centuries, and it was only late in the nineteenth century that football gave birth to two distinct offshoots, Rugby (as in the school in Warwickshire) rules and Association (as in Football Association) rules. They became, more simply, rugby and soccer (the word soccer deriving from the second syllable in 'association'), and it is only in relatively recent years that adherents of soccer claim it to be the One True Faith and that rugby was really a splinter game.

Soccer has no more claim to the ownership of the word football than rugby has. (But as sports marketing and image-conscious people became involved, rugby gradually has been quietly dropping the f-word from its titles. The New Zealand Rugby Football Union as a name was perfectly adequate for more than a hundred years; for the last ten or so, it has been the New Zealand Rugby Union.) To further cloud the issue, people in Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia, as well as in the United States and in Canada, have entirely different games in mind when their ears prick up at the word football. Their games too were children of the same parent. Soccer, rugby, Australian rules, American and Canadian football (and a few others) are blood brothers or cousins. (In February 2012 the Age newspaper in Melbourne carried a headline on its front page: 'Like it or lump it, football is back.' It was not about soccer. A month later, the Press in Christchurch had a similar headline but about a different game.)

The issue of who 'owns' the name of football has been around as long as there have been uniform rules. Previewing the 1880 season, a writer in The Times related that soccer followers claimed a monopoly on the word football because they had eliminated handling. But he said there was no more legitimate or scientific form of football than the dropkick or dribbling (then a big part of rugby). When people say, 'But rugby is a branch of football and it's football that was the original game,' the 'Y' argument should be employed. Imagine a capital Y. The bottom is the distant past when all sorts of games with balls were played in different countries for centuries. Travel up the Y and you reach the crossroads erected in the 1860s when rugby went one way and soccer the other.

In 1905, Giles was inspired by the All Blacks' match to seek out the foot of the Y. Giles traced football back to the third millennium BC when it formed part of the military curriculum. 'It is generally admitted to have been originally a military exercise and a handbook on football, in twenty-five chapters, is said to have been in existence under the Han dynasty, say two thousand years ago,' Giles wrote.

He quoted the man generally regarded as China's first historian, Sima Qian (Giles used his romanisation method, which transcribed the name as Ssu-ma Ch'ien). Qian, who was described as The Great Historian, wrote of the rich and powerful town of Linzi (Lin-tzu): 'There were none among its inhabitants who did not perform on the pipes, or on some stringed instrument, fight cocks, race dogs, dice or play football.'

Football was known as tsu-chu in the Wade-Giles method but is now romanised under the pinyin system as zu qiu. (Some soccer followers, including the governing body, FIFA, render it incorrectly as 'cu ju'.) The History of the Han Dynasty (206 BC to AD 25) mentioned football several times, including a comment: 'Tsu is to kick with the foot; chu, the ball, is made of leather and stuffed and is kicked about for amusement.' One emperor, Cheng of the Jin dynasty, was said to be fond of football, but officers told him it was both exhausting and unsuitable to the imperial dignity. Cheng apparently replied: 'We like playing and what one chooses to do is not exhausting.'

Giles also unearthed a poet, Li Yu, who lived between 50 and 130 AD and wrote perhaps the first football poem:

A round ball and a square wall,
Suggesting the shapes of the Yin and the Yang;
The ball flying across like the moon,
While the two teams stand opposed.
Captains are appointed, and take their places,
According to unchanging regulations.
No allowances are made for relationship;
There must be no partialities.
But there must be determination and coolness,
Without the slightest irritation at failure ...
And if all this is necessary for football,
How much more so for the business of life!

Six years after the All Blacks' visit to Cambridge, Giles summarised what he had learnt about the Chinese origins of football. 'Football was played in China at a very early date,' he wrote, 'originally with a ball stuffed full of hair; from the fifth century AD, with an inflated bladder covered with leather. A picture of the goal, which is something like a triumphal arch, has come down to us. ...' Giles recorded that winners were rewarded with flowers, fruit and wine 'and even with silver bowls and brocades, while the captain of the losing team was flogged and suffered other indignities'. The game thereafter disappeared for several centuries and was revived only towards the end of the nineteenth century as the Chinese empire faded and was eventually replaced by the republic.

Historical accounts frequently overlook the early Chinese role in the development of football and settle instead on ancient Greece and Rome for their ball game beginnings. The Greeks played a game called episkyros that involved two teams of up to fourteen or fifteen players, each defending a white line over which the opposing team tried to kick or throw a ball. Once the line was crossed, the game ended. So it was a game for possession rather than for points. And that, according to one classicist, is all that can be said about the game with confidence. Some rugby hearts beat faster when their owners learned of episkyros and saw a similarity with rugby, but another classicist, Harold Harris of the University of Wales (and being Welsh, likely to know something about rugby), slowed the pulse rates down again when he wrote there was not the slightest evidence that kicking played any part in the game. The Roman game of harpastum, which has its claimants as an antecedent of rugby, came from the Greek phaininda, which meant intercepting. In this game, two sides tossed a ball to each other while a hapless competitor between the two tried to grab it. Once again, hard evidence is lacking and yet another classicist, George Marindin, was among the first to suggest that looking back at ancient Greece and Rome for footballing roots was probably a waste of time. 'It will probably never be possible to lay down with certainty all the rules of any Greek and Roman game at ball,' he wrote. He also added, in an ominous note for all who followed his line of study, 'it may be well to guard against the idea that football of any sort was played in ancient Greece and Rome'.

Harpastum did not entirely disappear from sight. It is probably the basis for the version of football called il calcio in northern Italy, especially Florence, from the sixteenth century. That game should not be confused, although probably is, with the Italian name for football, calcio (which is Italian for kick) – the 'AC' part of AC Milan, for example, stands for Associazione Calcio. Il calcio, also known as giuoco del calcio fiorentino (Florentine kick game) developed as the young men of Florence adapted their game to the enclosed spaces of the inner city. It involved both handling and kicking with the ultimate aim of getting the ball over a designated spot on the perimeter of the field. Enthusiasts revived the game in the twentieth century and three matches are now played each year in the Piazza Santa Croce in Florence. The rules of the modern version are much the same, including such niceties as head-butting, punching and elbowing. For all the influence of the Florentine kick game or even of harpastum, the English usually get the credit for introducing modern football – that is, soccer – to Italy in the late nineteenth century with two of the first clubs, Genoa and Milan, being founded by and for English expatriates and having 'cricket' in their original titles (and hence Milan rather than Milano). As with China, the game had to go through a filtering process in Britain, or at least in England and Scotland, before heading back from whence it came.

One of the rugby personalities of the twentieth century, Danie Craven, was player, coach, manager and general ruler of white South African rugby from the mid-1930s until almost the end of the apartheid era in the early 1990s. Craven was also a highly qualified historian and anthropologist. In 1978, while he was president of the South African Rugby Board, he completed his last doctoral thesis, in physical education, about how and where games began. He arrived in the lobby of the Park Lane Hotel in Piccadilly brandishing newly bound copies of the thesis as if he were Moses waving his tablets. In it, Craven argued that sports and games in their rudimentary forms did what rats carrying diseases did – they went west from China and other parts of Asia to Greece and the Roman Empire, thence to western Europe and subsequently to Britain where the Atlantic prevented any further westward drift. And there they stayed for several hundred years until what came to be known as the games revolution when Britain, in the proud words of Sir Charles Tennyson, 'taught the world to play'.

English sociologists Eric Dunning and Kenneth Sheard, who have made the most comprehensive social study of the origins and development of football, believe there is no firm evidence that a game called football was played in Britain before the fourteenth century. But they note drily: 'However, lack of data has not deterred writers from speculating about the pre-fourteenth century origins of the modern games.' They even offered the theory, as sacrilegious as it may be to today's soccer fanatics, that football could have been so-named not because it involved kicking but because it was played on foot (as opposed to on horseback).

What is known for sure is that football was a folk game played under various names throughout the British Isles, as well as in places such as Italy and France, from at least the Middle Ages. Folk games were played more or less spontaneously by groups of people in a particular locale according to rules passed on by word of mouth over the years. Different towns had different rules and quite often different objects in their games. The only common factor seems to have been a ball that was originally the bladder of an animal – usually a pig. Dunning and Sheard thought the bladder's size made it easier to kick than smaller, solid balls, and that could have been a reason for the name football. But it is clear that the ball was also propelled or carried forward by means other than kicking. How else to explain the disappearance of the ball into the midst of a heaving melee? Although games had their own loose sets of rules – or perhaps customs is a more appropriate word – they were wild, unruly affairs and often served as an outlet for antipathies that existed between groups, between towns or even between families. Violence was endemic. It may have been fortunate then that games were played usually on festive days such as Shrove Tuesday or Ash Wednesday. They were not regular, programmed occurrences in the manner of sporting fixtures now because their participants had more pressing things to do.

According to Joseph Strutt, an eighteenth-century English antiquarian who compiled an exhaustive record called The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England, forms of football did make an early appearance on British fields. The Shrovetide game at Chester was said to have been in commemoration of the kicking about of the head of a captured Dane; the Derby game was supposed to have marked a local victory over the Romans. The game was supposed to have been played in the twelfth century, if William fitz Stephen is to be believed. He was the biographer of Thomas Becket and wrote in his Description of the City of London in 1190:

After dinner, all the youth of the city go into the field of the suburbs and address themselves to the famous game of football. The scholars of each school have their peculiar ball; and the particular trades have most of them theirs. The elders of the city, the fathers of the parties, and the rich and the wealthy, come to the field on horseback, in order to behold the exercises of the youth, and in appearance are themselves as youthful as the youngest; their natural heat seeming to be revived at the sight of so much agility, and in a participation of the diversions of their festive sons.

Whether Stephen meant football as it is now understood is a moot point. He wrote in Latin and his words were interpreted in different ways including, by an antiquarian in the eighteenth century, to mean tennis. And this confusion lends credence to the Dunning and Sheard belief that it is best to be wary of any claimants for football provenance before at least the fourteenth century. But there was no doubt that Britons were using the word, whether spelt 'foot-ball', 'fute-ball' or just plain old 'football' or other variants, by at the latest the Middle Ages. What is in doubt is what the word actually meant; that is, what the game was if indeed it was a game at all.

By the fourteenth century too, authorities, from kings to councils, began to notice the game. King Edward II became the first monarch to try to ban football. The reason he did so was not because it was violent and threatened the health of his subjects but because while they were enjoying themselves at football, they were not practising their archery. There was also an element of snobbery. Montague Shearman, a lawyer, judge and co-founder of the Amateur Athletic Association in England, wrote about athletics and football for the Badminton Library of Sports and Pastimes in 1887. 'For many centuries in England,' he wrote, 'any pedestrian sport which was not immediately connected with knightly skill was considered unworthy of a gentleman of equestrian rank, and this will account in a great measure for the adverse criticisms of football which proceed from writers of aristocratic position.'


Excerpted from Rugby by Ron Palenski. Copyright © 2015 Ron Palenski. Excerpted by permission of Auckland University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1. A fork in the football road,
2. Rugby comes to New Zealand,
3. Thinking nationally – sometimes,
4. The first and the greatest,
5. The grand tour,
6. The game splinters,
7. From war to the Invincibles,
8. Lessons on tour,
9. The shadow of the wing forward,
10. Defeat at home and abroad,
11. Springboks, race and a new era,
12. End of an era approaches,
13. Conflict and money,
14. The more things change,
A football timeline,

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