New Zealand’s first game of rugby


The crowd of Nelsonians gathered at The Botanics one May day in 1870 had no idea that they were witnessing the birth of a New Zealand tradition, rugby..... 

Nelson Rugby ClubThe 1873 Nelson Rugby Football Club. The Nelson Provincial Museum, Print Collection, 290552
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The first recognised and recorded game of rugby played in New Zealand took place on Saturday, May 14, 1870 between a Nelson College side and the Nelson Football Club. 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, brought to New Zealand by Charles Monro.1

The term football was used to cover many versions of a team game in which a ball was kicked. The move into rugby is said to have come when a student of Rugby School in England first picked up the ball and ran with it in 1823.2 This crucial difference was adopted first by the school, and then universally, apparently because the school was the first to publish its rules, in 1845.3

Charles John MonroCharles John Monro, 1930, [founder of Rugby Union in New Zealand], The Nelson Provincial Museum, Cooper-Sharp Collection, 223693/9
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Charles Monro, son of the then Speaker of the New Zealand Parliament, Sir David Monro, has been termed the “father of New Zealand rugby”.4 He played rugby as a student at Christ College, Finchley, England, and introduced the rules to the Nelson Football Club in January 1870. He suggested a match be played against Nelson College, whose headmaster, Rev. F.C. Simmons, was himself a former student of Rugby School, as were his two predecessor principals. This led to the historic match four months later.5

Each team had 18 players, a number agreed by the captains before the match, made up of 10 forwards, three half-backs, three three-quarters and two fullbacks.6 The college team was decked out in tight-fitting shirts and blue caps, while the “town” team sported street clothes, having no particular uniform.7

The Colonist of May 17 reported the “football” match, describing attributes of the game that signalled its difference from the traditional versions of football. “Now some player runs with it (the ball, apparently oval) 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.” Later in the report, readers were told “the ball is ‘touched down’ behind the goal.”8

The town team won the game two - nil and everyone went home, apparently unaware of the significance of the spectacle: the first game of rugby in New Zealand had just been played.

Nelson College Rugby teamNelson College Rugby team 1876, Nelson College
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But, while the 1870 game is the first recognised game of rugby in the country, there are indications in the 1909 Nelson College Register of a rugby-like game being played as early as 1860. At this time the college was in temporary premises in Manuka Street, just four years after its establishment.

Students were taught the new game by two Anglican clergymen in Nelson at the time, Robert Codrington and Henry Turton, both Rugby School old boys. Records of the 1860 match, by a Nelson College old boy using the pen name “Scrum”, refer to “[players] down like ninepins” and “[the ball] over the bar”. This indicates a game like the one played at Rugby at the time. This sport did not become popular until a much later date,9 however.

It was much later that the game played in Nelson on 14 May 1870 game was officially recognised as the first organised game of rugby in New Zealand. It was the first game, officially recorded , which used the full rugby rules introduced by Monro, and also the oval ball.  Earlier games may have been like rugby, but probably did not apply all the new rules and probably used a round ball. Nelson is generally agreed to be the birthplace of New Zealand rugby.10


Re-enactment of the first game of Rugby, 2011

As part of the Rugby World Cup Game On Festival in 2011, a re-enactment of the first game of Rugby was organised by Nelson City Council. The 18 a-side game, played at the Botanics on 20th September, 2011  re-enacted the original match between Nelson College and the Nelson Rugby Club. The Rugby Club team, captained by Chris Pugh, included 15 current players and 10 retired players; the Nelson College team was their current First XV. The game was played according to the "Rugby Laws"[PDF] for 1870, as introduced by Charles Monro.

Watch the game on Youtube.

 Updated: Apr 14, 2020

Sources used in this story

  1. Turley, A. (1996). They Gave Us Rugby, Nelson, N.Z.: Nelson College, p.18,19,21.
  2. Turley (1996), p.7.
  3. Williams , T. (1999). 100 Great Moments in New Zealand Rugby, Auckland, N.Z. : David Ling Publishing.
  4. Turley (1996), p.14.
  5. ‘Football Match’ (1870, 18 May), The Nelson Examiner, p.3.
  6. Williams, p.9.
  7. Turley (1996). pp,18-19.
  8. Turley (1996), p.19,20,22.
  9. Turley, A. (2008). Rugby-The Pioneer Years, How Rugby Captured the Heart of a Nation, Auckland, N.Z.: Harper Collins, p.58-60.
  10. Palenski, R. (2015) Rugby: a New Zealand history. Auckland: Auckland University Press, p.28

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  • New Zealand can will this rugby world cup 2015 easily because its position is strong.

    Posted by New Zealand, 22/07/2015 5:55pm (9 years ago)

  • I’m not sure the date of the first game is correct, see News of the Day.
    Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle, Volume XXVIII, Issue 48, 16 June 1869, Page 3: “On Saturday, 14 May 1870, Nelson College played Nelson Club (“The Town” it was called) at the Botanical Reserve, Nelson. This was the first interclub rugby union football match to be played in New Zealand.”
    Ed. response - there were "football" games played in Nelson before 1870, but rugby proper, with the English rules was brought to NZ from England by Charles Monro in Jan 1870. The first game under these rules was the one in Nelson in May 1870. There is widespread agreement on this.

    Posted by Stephen Morse, ()

  • I think like the "invention" of rugby, by one Webb Ellis, the Nelson game of 14th May is also a red herring. Charles had his old man to vouch for him well after the event,and plenty of other, what were in effect 'mob ball' games were played in NZ decades before the Nelson one. PLease do not perpetuate this myth any longer. NZ rugby history, and indeed world rugby history, needs strong academic revision.

    Posted by Harko, ()

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Further sources - New Zealand’s first game of rugby




Web Resources

Visit sites associated with the first game of rugby played in New Zealand

The Botanics Reserve

  • Situated on the corner of Hardy Street East and Milton Street in The Wood, Nelson. A stone cairn and information board (shaped like a rugby ball and posts) commemorating the first rugby game played in New Zealand are located in the reserve beside the sports pavilion. Retrieved 28 November 2008.

Nelson College

  • Waimea Road, Nelson. Beside the main driveway off Hampden Street and on the grass beside Rutherford House is a bronze rugby ball set on a stone plinth. It commemorates Charles Monro’s introduction of rugby football to New Zealand and the first game played at The Botanics.

The Nelson Rugby Football Club