Great New Zealand rugby legends

New Zealand and rugby go together like fish and chips, so it’s hard to imagine a time when the two weren’t closely linked.

We pay tribute to the great and glorious, and occasionally inglorious stories embedded in Kiwi sporting culture.

NZ’s first Mr Rugby

For a young country, New Zealand has a long history with rugby. The game came to New Zealand in 1870 with Charles Monro - a young Nelson man who had just returned from studies in England. Monro introduced rugby to his South Island friends, and New Zealand’s first rugby game was played at Botanical Reserve, Nelson - a sign commemorating the game stands at the grounds.

Later that year, Monro arranged the first North Island rugby game between Wellington and Nelson. It wasn’t an easy task as he had to arrange for the Nelson rugby team to cross Cook Strait. There was no ferry service at the time but with the help of his father - a prominent politician - they managed to get the team over on a government boat. The game was played at Petone, on the shores of Wellington Harbour.

Charles Monro eventually settled in Manawatu and became one of the country’s top plum producers. Descendants of the Monro family are still playing rugby in Nelson.

All Blacks - origins of the name

The question of how the All Blacks got their name has been a subject of debate for years.

For a long time the English media was credited for coining the title during the 1905 rugby tour with a typing error that turned the phrase ‘All Backs’ (referring to their playing style) into ‘All Blacks’. However, no evidence exists to support this claim.

Around the turn of the century there was a trend for rugby teams to be identified by their kit colour. References to the ‘all blacks’ have been found as far back as 1893, though it seems the name was popularised as a nickname on the 1905 tour.

Epic New Zealand Natives tour

The All Blacks were not the first New Zealand rugby team to tour the northern hemisphere - this honour belongs to the New Zealand Natives team that toured in 1888 / 1889.

While the NZ Natives were not official representatives, they were the first New Zealand team to undertake the then arduous task of a British tour. Originally the team was to consist of players of Māori ancestry, but several players included were not Māori. They became known as the New Zealand Natives - even though a couple of the players were not New Zealand-born.

By the end of their tour the 'Natives' had completed 107 rugby matches - winning 78 - in New Zealand, Australia and Great Britain. They even threw in a few Australian rules and football games for good measure.

Introducing the haka

All Blacks performing the haka before a test match has become a ritual on the world rugby stage. Various types of war cry were performed by touring New Zealand teams as far back as 1884, but the All Blacks 1905 / 1906 British tour is mostly credited with popularising the haka.

The famous Ka Mate haka was probably first performed by the All Blacks in 1906. Reference to the "New Zealand War Cry" was included on a programme for a 1916 New Zealand Army match against Wales, showing it had established a presence.

Other international teams performed their own version of the haka in the early days, including a Zulu war dance by the South Africans, and an Aboriginal war cry by the Australians. However, only the All Black team has continued the tradition into modern rugby.

Until the 1970s, the haka was mostly performed when New Zealand teams were playing overseas but it is now a fixture of any All Black match.

‘The Originals’ & ‘The Invincibles’

Two teams in All Black history earned special monikers based on their impact on the game.

‘The Originals’ were the 1905 All Black team that toured the British Isles and France. First to be dubbed the ‘All Blacks’, their impressive play and near complete dominance - 34 wins in 35 games, and no points conceded in 23 of 35 games - captivated the media. The game had originated in Britain, but the Kiwis had taken it to a new level.

In 1924 / 1925, and back in the northern hemisphere, another All Black team out-did the impressive statistics achieved by ‘The Originals’. ‘The Invincibles’ played 32 matches, including games against England, Ireland, Wales and France, winning all 32 matches.

Bring Back Buck!

Under Buck Shelford’s captaincy (1987 - 1990), the All Blacks never lost a game. Shelford is also credited with taking the haka to a new level by transforming it into the awesome spectacle that modern audiences expect.

Shelford was on the field when the All Blacks won the World Cup in 1987, and he famously played on in a test match after his scrotum was ripped open in a scrum. The sum of these achievements meant that Buck was revered by the New Zealand public.

Many fans were outraged when Shelford was dropped from the All Blacks in 1990, especially as the All Blacks long winning streak ended shortly afterwards. In response ‘Bring Back Buck’ signs began appearing at test matches. The signs have become an enduring feature of Kiwi rugby, and fans can expect to see a few in the stands during RWC 2011.

Jonah - global rugby superstar

With his biblical name, six-foot-five height, and a penchant for running over the top of defenders, Jonah Lomu was always going to grab attention.

Considered by many to be the best player at the 1995 Rugby World Cup, Lomu became an international rugby superstar. His impressive size, strength and speed made him an intimidating and unique rugby player. His signature style of running into and over defenders with ease saw him labelled a ‘freak’ by former England captain Will Carling.

Lomu’s explosive play meant that in his heyday he was considered ‘rugby union’s biggest drawcard’, capable of increasing match ticket sales single-handedly.

World-first national rugby museum

The New Zealand Rugby Museum was the world’s first national rugby museum established. Founded by John Sinclair in Palmerston North in 1969, the museum has been a labour of rugby love from the beginning and owes its existance to the loyal support of many volunteers.

The rugby museum now houses nearly 30,000 items of rugby memorabilia, much of it rare and frequently requested for use by publishers and journalists. The valuable collection includes programmes, uniforms, rare footage and scrapbooks dating back to 1880.

The museum is housed in a dedicated wing in Te Manawa - the museum of Palmerston North - and the contemporary interactive collection has become a big draw-card for international rugby lovers.

The Black Ferns

While the All Blacks are a household name in New Zealand and famous throughout the rugby playing world, the less well known national women’s rugby team - the Black Ferns - is another Kiwi rugby team with an impressive performance record.

The Black Ferns first appeared at the Women’s Rugby World Cup in 1991, making it into the semi-finals. They went on to become world cup winners in 1998, and repeated the feat in 2002, 2006 and 2010.

The Black Ferns have one of the best winning percentages in international rugby.

New Zealand’s ‘log o’ wood’

For most of the past century, the Ranfurly Shield has been the rugby prize at the pinnacle of domestic New Zealand rugby. Affectionately known as the ‘log o’ wood’, the Ranfurly Shield was presented to the rugby union by the Earl of Ranfurly, then Governor of New Zealand.

Auckland became the first shield holder in 1902. Shield competition was originally based on performance over an entire season, but this was changed to a challenge system. The shield holders lose the shield if defeated at any official challenge match during the season.

The advent of professional rugby competition took some of the emphasis away from the Ranfurly Shield, but its long history means that for many Kiwis it is still the true mark of success for domestic rugby.

Colin Meads - NZ player of the century

Colin Meads is a living legend for New Zealand rugby fans. Named ‘Player of the Century’ by the NZRFU, he is regarded by many as the greatest player to take the field.

Meads, known as 'the enforcer’, was legendary for his hard play. He once played on with a broken arm in a game against South Africa. When the team doctor cut his shirt and confirmed the break, he famously remarked, "At least we won the bloody game."

A popular Meads story claims he trained by running uphill on his farm with a sheep under each arm but in reality it was his hard-working 15-hour days on the farm that kept him in shape. He once said that he looked forward to the rugby season as a respite from the real hard work of farming.

Colin Meads fan club members, decked out in number five jerseys, meet each year on his birthday to drink five-ounce beers while celebrating the famous All Black.

More information

Iconic New Zealand rugby grounds