Origins of the All Blacks name

Image: New Zealand Observer, 1893

Ron Palenski for New Zealand Rugby     28 Jun 2017     Image: New Zealand Observer, 1893

It was the custom in the formative rugby years of the 19th century to refer to teams in newspaper reports by their jersey colours: Auckland, for example, were frequently called "the Blue and Whites" and Wellington, "the Blacks." When the first British team toured New Zealand in 1888, their jerseys were red, white and blue hoops and they were referred to as "the Colours." (NZ Referee, May 18 1888, page 308).
Black with a silver fern on the left breast of the jersey was first used by the New Zealand Natives team that toured New Zealand, Australia and the United Kingdom in 1888-89.  Among their local opponents was Wellington, which switched to blue and white jerseys for the occasion, and in one newspaper report, the Natives were referred to as "the Blacks" because of the jersey colour. (NZ Times, July 16 1888, p3).
The Natives played in Australia on their way home and a weekly sports paper in Sydney, the Referee, had this to say the morning after they beat New South Wales (italics added): "When I say that NSW led by 9 points to love up to the first few minutes of the second spell, it can be imagined how the all blacks played up during the last term ..." (Sydney Referee, June 26 1889, page 6).

Wellington, because they played at the time in black jerseys and black knickerbockers, were also referred to as the All Blacks. Before a match against Auckland, a reporter wrote: "I think the all blacks should be pleased if they can obtain a draw against the blue and whites ..." (Evening Post, August 31 1889, page 3)

One of the more influential members of the Natives was a Wellington lawyer, Tom Ellison, a Ngai Tahu man and one of the first Maori admitted to the Bar. He was a delegate to the first annual meeting of the New Zealand Rugby Football Union in 1893 and successfully moved that the national team uniform be black jersey with a silver fern and white knickerbockers. The jersey was the same as the Natives' of four years before and also mirrored the black singlet with silver fern that national athletics teams had worn in Sydney in 1890 and Britain and France in 1892.

Later in 1893, Ellison was appointed Captain of the first national team under the auspices of the NZRFU. An Auckland journalist wrote of a pending match against New South Wales: "I expect to see the All Blacks come out on top with a substantial majority." (NZ Observer, July 29 1893, page 5) 

There were other references to the team as the All Blacks before the first northern hemisphere tour in 1905-06 and when that team played its first game, a report in the local paper the next morning read: "The All Blacks, as they are styled by reason of their sable and unrelieved costume ..." (Express and Echo, Exeter, September 18 1905)

The mistaken belief that the 1905-06 All Blacks were named because of a printer's error (all backs becoming all blacks) was mentioned by one of the players, Billy Wallace, at a reunion in 1955 and stuck as an origin myth. No such error can be found in newspapers of the time. But the reference to the All Blacks after their first match on that tour shows they arrived with a name and did not have it bestowed on them during the tour. All the tour did was to give it wider publicity because of the greater number of newspapers and the intense interest in the tour.

The name is now famous around the world, and has influenced the names of many of the senior teams from other sporting codes in New Zealand.  Within rugby there are also the Maori All Blacks, Junior All Blacks and All Blacks Sevens teams while rugby players under 10 years old are known as Small Blacks - some of them no doubt, All Blacks of the future.

Ron Palenski is an author and historian who is recognised as one of the leading authorities on the history of rugby. He lives in Dunedin, New Zealand.