“THE EARLY DAYS
THE FIRST YEAR — 1870
The history of New Zealand Rugby football commences with the Nelson Football Club of 1870. Founded in 1868 by Mr. R. C. Tennent, the first Secretary and Treasurer, to provide winter sport for the members, the Club played Association and Victorian Rules football for the first two years of its existence, changing to Rugby early in 1870. The change was brought about by the arrival back in New Zealand of Mr. C. J. Monro, a son of Sir David Monro, then Speaker in the New Zealand House of Representatives, who had been to England to attend Sherborne (1) School. Mr. Monro suggested that the Club try out the Rugby rules under his tuition, the new game proving so attractive to the members that Rugby was soon adopted as their sport. Thus the first Rugby Football Club in New Zealand was born.
Nelson also has the honour of having had the second Rugby Football Club founded in the City. Nelson College had not taken up football seriously till Nelson Football Club — the Town Club it was literally called — had been established, but it is on record that the College had staged a game – a picked eighteen against the rest of the School — in the early ‘sixties, the game being described in an issue of The Nelsonian as resembling the famous match, Schoolhouse versus School, of “Tom Brown’s Schooldays.” That Code was not persevered with. However, in 1868 football at the College again functioned, and with Nelson Club’s adoption of Rugby rules in 1870 they, too, chose the new game.
After both Clubs had had practices a match was arranged, this historical match, the first Inter-Club match to be played under Rugby rules in New Zealand, took place at the Botanical Reserve, Nelson, on Saturday, May 14, 1870 (2), Nelson Club winning by two goals to nil. An account of the match is given in The Colonist (Nelson), Tuesday, May 17, 1870, as follows :—
“FOOTBALL MATCH, — THE COLLEGE v. TOWN. —
An enthusiastic football player sends us the following account of this game: — The toss for the ‘kick off’ having been won by the College, the respective sides are placed by the captains. First the ‘kick off,’ with the fast runners in attendance to follow up the ball-; next, a few to back them up, the long kicks’ in the rear, and then the goal minders.’ The other side stand well back to catch the ball for a run, or long kick, to get it back past the ‘kick off,’ with a few to charge the foremost of their opponents. And now, what was comparative silence and inactivity is suddenly converted into a rushing, noisy, shouting crew, and as the ball is kicked off the game commences in earnest. Almost as soon as the ball is amongst the Town players, the College have followed up, when a kick sends it over their heads again, and then it is seen in one place, and then in another, the whole field in pursuit. Now some player runs with it, and a general scrimmage ensues; it is all shove, pull, rush and roll about in a confused mass till ‘down’ is cried, and away the ball goes again till perchance it gets in touch or caught. At first the College had it all their own way, and seemed intent on rushing the goal before the Town players shook themselves together; the ball was repeatedly charged close up to the goal, but was always got rid of safely. Now the Town side began to play better, and by taking advantage of a chance runs right down to the College goal, and the ball is ‘touched down’ behind the goal, and when kicked out before the College can charge him, Drew has placed a splendid goal, after a long and obstinately contested game. After a short respite the goals are changed and the game resumed. Again the silence is broken with cries of ‘off side,’ ‘touch it down,’ etc.; again the whole field seems. in a rapid move, in first one and then another direction, or engaged in a scrimmage, or a long run, or waiting eagerly for the ball to be thrown in from ‘touch,’ while some unfortunate may be seen hopping temporarily to the rear to repair damages. . . . Presently the ball is kicked through the College goal by Clark, and so the game terminates in favour of the Town Club.”
The Nelson Examiner (Nelson), Wednesday, May 18, 1870, also contained a report of the match, stating that eighteen a-side was played, and concluding with
“College played well and made a hard fight of it, determined not to give up, but at last a sudden rush by Monro and Clark decided the matter, the latter managing to kick a goal.”
The newspaper accounts of the match leave no doubt as to the contest being played under Rugby rules. No other Code then in existence had the words “ scrimmage,” “in touch,” “touch it down,” “catch the ball for a run” or “placed a splendid goal” associated with it, and even to-day the phrases could only apply to Rugby Union and to Rugby League. The fact that the teams fielded eighteen a-side is in keeping with the formations of the early days: ten forwards (“the ‘kick off,’ with the fast runners to follow up”), three half-backs (“a few to back them up”), three three-quarters (“the long kicks in the rear”) and two full-backs (“ goal minders”). It must be remembered that the number of players on a side was a matter of agreement between the captains. The Rugby Football Union (England) had not been formed at that time, and even when that body was founded the following year (January 26, 1871) the question of the number of players was not decided upon. The first match between England and Scotland (at Edinburgh, March 27, 1871) was played with 20 a-side — thirteen forwards, three half-backs, one three-quarter and three full-backs, a state of affairs which existed up to February 5, 1877, when fifteen a-side was introduced, and then for the International matches only. By 1875 New Zealand had adopted fifteen a-side universally, and was ahead of the Mother Union in this respect. It should be noted that the Oxford- Cambridge University match of the 1875-76 season was played fifteen a-side, however.
Posterity owes a debt of gratitude to that Nelson enthusiast for his report of the first match, and to its recording.”
From “The History of New Zealand Rugby Football Vol. 1 1870-1945” by A C Swan. First published 1948 by A H & A W Reed. Pp. 1 – 3.
(1) Later research has established the school in England that C J Monro attended was Christ’s College, Finchley, London.
(2) By dint of good planning the Rugby Museum Society of New Zealand was registered as an incorporated Society in May 14 1970.