Marlborough Rugby - first 100 years


The Marlborough Rugby Football Union (MRFU) was founded in 1888, 18 years after New Zealand's first rugby game was played in Nelson.1   However, a game of rugby was played at Seymour Square on May 8, 1878,2 after ‘a meeting of footballists' was called on 27 April.3

A year later in 1879, the first competitive game of rugby was played on Hull's Paddock (now the A&P showgrounds), with a Blenheim team beating an Awatere team. The Awatere lads came from far and wide, meeting at the Pig and Whistle Hotel at the Awatere Ford, before riding into town together.The townies mainly consisted of young telegraph workers who worked at New Zealand's principal telegraph centre based in Blenheim.5   Picton's Waitohi Rugby Football Club was formed in 1885, with the club's first match against Blenheim on July 11, 1885, resulting in a draw.6

Awarua Club. Marlborough Historical Society – Marlborough Museum Archives
Click image to enlarge

By 1889, the MRFU consisted of six clubs,7 with matches played on Seymour Square, McCallum's paddock (now Pollard Park) and various other paddocks around town.8

It wasn't until 1906, that a district scheme divided Marlborough club football into five districts.  This initiative was taken to engender district loyalty and improve competition - the latter because the Awarua Football Club (renamed Moutere RFC in 1906), based at Spring Creek, had won the Citizen's Challenge Cup seven times by 1905.9  Under the scheme, abolished in 1932,10  club membership was established by ‘where a player hung his Sunday clothes' on April 1 of each year.11

Reunion of the Central Football Club (1906-1913) in 1971. Marlborough Historical Society – Marlborough Museum Archives
Click image to enlarge

The Seddon Shield, contested between the Marlborough, Nelson, Buller and West Coast Unions, was also established in 1906.  Marlborough was the first Seddon Shield winner and held it from 1906-1913.12

Marlborough v Wellington at Athletic Park, 1911. Marlborough Historical Society – Marlborough Museum Archives
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Marlborough Rugby was still very much in its development phase in the early 20th Century, with the first practice of the new Opawa RF Club in 1906 described as "a fairly good muster of players, and although the form displayed was poor, practice and consistent training will no doubt in a short time bring a decided improvement."13  In 1909, Marlborough beat Auckland, holders of the Ranfurly Shield  - a win, which was locally regarded as placing Marlborough at the top of the table.14

Lansdowne Park was officially opened in 1930, with the touring British team playing  a combined Marlborough/Nelson team on 12 August, and winning 41-3.15 The park was named in honour of a bequest from Mr G.F. Watt, owner of Lansdowne, a Wairau Valley sheep station.16  

During World War 2, Lansdowne Park was used as accommodation for troops stationed in Marlborough.  There was intense rivalry between teams from the camps and by 1942, Marlborough's rep team contained only one civilian.17 The great Fred Allen played a game for Marlborough when he was in the RNZAF.18

The Glory Days

Souvenir Programme, 1968 Marlborough Historical Society – Marlborough Museum Archives
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Marlborough stunned the rugby world in 1968 when it beat a touring French team 24-19 in a magnificent game at Lansdowne Park.19

Many of the players from the 1968 team were in the Marlborough team20 which took the Ranfurly Shield from Canterbury (13-6) on 28 July 1973. "Marlborough had done the seemingly impossible in taking the shield off a major province and holding on to it for a full season," wrote the late sports commentator, Mick Jellyman, who said Marlborough had never beaten a team of its calibre in its rugby history. 21

Commemoration brochure of the Ranfurly Shield winning team, 1973. Marlborough Historical Society - Marlborough Museum ArchivesClick image to enlarge

A record 13,000+  people attended the Ranfurly Shield match at Lansdowne Park  between  Marlborough and Nelson Bays in 1973.22 Profits from Ranfurly Shield defence matches in 1973/74 benefited the MRFU, enabling the union to carry out improvements on the facilities at Lansdowne Park. 23

Marlborough lost the shield to South Canterbury24 on August 17, 1974 at Lansdowne Park.25 However, the run of success continued in the national Sevens tournaments held between 1975 and 1977, culminating in Marlborough being chosen to represent New Zealand in Hong Kong in 1977.  Marlborough hosted the national Sevens in 1977, but met with little success. 26

Marlborough has produced a number of All Blacks, but there are just six ‘Marlborough All Blacks' who were chosen to wear the silver fern while playing for the Marlborough rep side. They were Charlie Fitzgerald (1922), Jack Best(1935-36), Ian Hammond(1951-52), Phil Clarke(1967), Alan Sutherland (1968, 1970-73, 1976) and Brian Ford(1977-79). 27

This story was written by Joy Stephens, with assistance from Peter Jones, sports editor, Marlborough Express. (updated 2023)

Sources used in this story

  1. Palenski, R. (2005) The encyclopedia of New Zealand rugby. [Auckland, N.Z.]: Hodder Moa. p.395
  2. Vercoe, Selwyn (1938) The golden jubilee of the Marlborough Rugby Football Union 1888-1938: a short history of the game in this province with the first complete record of representative matches and players. Blenheim, N.Z.: MRFU., p. 5
  3. Marlborough Express (1878, April 27) p.5
  4. Brooks, C. (2006) One hundred years a tussock jumper: A centennial history of the Awatere rugby Football Club. 1906-2006, Renwick: Maidstone Publications Ltd. pp. 10-11
  5. Marlborough Rugby Football Union: 75th Jubilee: 1888-1963. (1963) Programme of Celebrations, p.3
  6. Waitohi Rugby Football Club: Centennial Booklet 1885-1985. (1985)
  7. Football presentation(1889, Nov 27) The Marlborough Express, p.3.
  8. Vercoe, p.7
  9. Vercoe, p.13
  10. Marlborough Centennial: 1859-1959: A history of sports bodies in Marlborough (1959), p.7
  11. Mangin, N.M. (1981) Opawa Rugby Football Club: 75th Jubilee, 1906-1981, p.1
  12. The Seddon Shield quest (1919, September 22) Marlborough Express p 2 .
  13. Mangin, p.2
  14. Vercoe, p.15
  15. Vercoe,  p.25
  16. Vercoe, p.33
  17. Huse, J (compiled by) (1948) Marlborough Rugby Football Union: Diamond Jubilee: 1888-1948. Programme of Jubilee. p.5
  18. Turvey, H. (1988) Rugby in Marlborough: 1888-1988. A souvenir booklet to mark the centennial of the Marlborough Rugby Football Union, p.50
  19. Berry, K. (2001) Marlborough (Ranfurly Shield) country. Picton, N.Z.: P K Publications, p.69
  20. Turvey, p.49
  21. Berry, p.69
  22. Palenski, p.395
  23. Turvey, p.55
  24. Berry, p.73
  25. The Rugby Almanack of New Zealand (1975 ed.)
  26. Turvey, p.58
  27. Turvey, p.81

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  • I have recently found a framed copy of a rugby team, 1st XV 1932. I don't recognize any faces from my own family but my grandmother kept this frames copy on her wall. Does anyone recognize a family face? It would be nice to pass this on to the appropriate family.

    Posted by Laural Randall, 21/07/2023 6:34pm (9 months ago)

  • Hi, I am trying to find out about my family history in Blenheim. According to my sister my Grandmother Eileen McMahon was involved with the Blenheim Rugby club back in the 1940s --50s---Her husband Barney McMahon and my Father Robert McPartlin and my uncle Ruben Tuckerman may have been involved also.

    If you have any information about these people it would be very gratefully received.

    Yours sincerely

    Denis McPartlin

    It appears that the Marlborough Rugby Football Union no longer exists but the Nelson Bays Rugby sub union have combined with the Marlborough Rugby Sub Union to make the Tasman Rugby Union. Their rugby team is called the Makos. I therefore suggest you email to see if they have any more details on the history of the Marlborough Club.

    Posted by Denis McPartlin, 12/01/2017 2:59am (7 years ago)

  • Hi I am trying to find out my family history. According to my Sister my Grandmother Eileen McMahon was closely
    involved with the Blenheim Rugby club way back in the 1940-50s also my father--Robert McPartlin and my uncle Reuben Tuckerman may have been involved also. If you have any records about these people any you can supply will be gratefully received --my grandfather was Barny McMahon.

    Yours sincerely

    Denis McPartlin

    Posted by Denis McPartlin, 12/01/2017 2:51am (7 years ago)

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Further sources - Marlborough Rugby - first 100 years



  • 100 years for Central rugby' (2005, 15 June). The Blenheim Sun, p.14
  • Van Wel, Alex ‘Make or break time for Makos' (2008, 1 November). Press, p.D7

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