On Saturday, May 14, 1870, a crowd of about 200 people gathered at the Botanic sports field in Nelson to witness a Nelson College side take on the Nelson Football club in a new form of football brought to New Zealand by Charles Monro, a man who would go onto become known as the ‘Father of Rugby’ in New Zealand.
It is likely that none of the players, spectators or officials had any idea of the magnitude of what they had witnessed that day.
As published at theprow.org.nz (a website dedicated to historical and cultural stories from Nelson, Tasman and Marlborough), the game differed in many ways from what you would expect to see with modern rugby.
For starters, 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. The uniforms also bore no resemblance to the short-sleeved, body hugging kits you would expect to see today. The college team was decked out in tight-fitting shirts and blue caps, while the “town” team sported street clothes, having no particular uniform. The scoring system was also much different with the ‘town’ team winning 2-0, a score line that you would associate more closely with football as opposed to rugby.
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.”
It is fair to say that the encounter between Nelson College and Nelson Football Club in May 1870 was a humble affair, but one that started a legacy of rugby in New Zealand that would become unrivalled on the world stage and spark the imagination of generations of followers.
While remembering this historic encounter, it is also important to acknowledge the role of Charles Monro.
Monro was the son of the then Speaker of the New Zealand Parliament, Sir David Monro. He played rugby as a student at Christ College, Finchley, England, and introduced the rules to the Nelson Football Club on his return to New Zealand 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.
Monro is remembered every year at the ASB New Zealand Rugby Awards through the Charles Monro Volunteer of the Year Award which pays tribute to Monro’s pioneering spirit and role he played in establishing rugby in the country.
As part of the Rugby World Cup 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" for 1870.
New Zealand rugby timeline
1870: First game of rugby played in New Zealand
1884: First New Zealand representative team selected to tour Australia
1892: New Zealand Rugby Football Union (NZRFU) established (Now known as New Zealand Rugby)
1905: The Original All Blacks (known simply as ‘The Originals’) become the first New Zealand national team to tour outside of Australasia.
1910: First official New Zealand Māori team selected.
1924: The Invincible ‘All Blacks’ embark on an unbeaten 32-match tour of Britain, Ireland and France
1932: First Bledisloe Cup match between the All Blacks and Australia takes place
1956: The All Blacks defeat South Africa in a Test series at home for the first time
1987: Inaugural Rugby World Cup hosted in New Zealand. The All Blacks are crowned champions.
1990: Black Ferns play their first international match
1996: The All Blacks win a series in South Africa for the first time
1998: The Black Ferns win the first of their five Rugby World Cup titles
2011: All Blacks win second Rugby World Cup title on home soil
2015: All Blacks win third Rugby World Cup title (first away from home) in London.
2017: The All Blacks and British and Irish Lions tie their series 1-1 with a dramatic draw in the third Test at Eden Park