Grassroots rugby in New Zealand

New Zealand’s national love affair with rugby starts at grassroots level.

So ingrained is the national sport that many babies are sporting black shirts with the silver fern before they can walk, and toddlers often learn to kick a ball before they can talk.

For many it’s the start of a life-long involvement in a sport that is so entwined with the New Zealand way of life that it’s almost a barometer of the health of the nation.

New Zealand’s national game

On May 14, 1870 the first rugby game in New Zealand was played between Nelson College and Nelson Football Club. Today, rugby is New Zealand's national game, and forms an integral part of Kiwi culture and identity.

New Zealand’s national side, the All Blacks, have become the most feared opponent in the sport. This international success is built on the strength of grassroots rugby - the schools, clubs, and representative teams of New Zealand's 26 provincial unions.

National psyche

One reason for the significance of the sport in the national psyche is the way that it developed historically, having been imported from the United Kingdom then quickly becoming a grassroots pursuit of small communities.

Former All Black John Kirwan believes rugby was a defining aspect of the identity New Zealand forged for itself as a young country, independent of the United Kingdom.

"New Zealand produces rugby people because it’s part of our heritage, it’s how we identified ourselves when we detached from England, so it’s really entrenched in our psyche," says Kirwan.

Early days

The All Blacks were originally a touring team, selected from clubs around the country to travel and play against international sides.

National teams from other countries visiting New Zealand would not confine themselves to the big cities; most regions would host an international match.

So the rugby park and the rugby club became key institutions of both the provinces and the society.

School & club rugby

Every Saturday, well over 100,000 players, big and small, lace up their boots and run onto rugby fields throughout New Zealand to play school and club rugby.

Some fields are no more than farm paddocks, others are hallowed grounds that have witnessed many of the greatest games in history between teams at the pinnacle of their sport.

While the All Blacks might be the national heroes with enviable international profiles, all can trace their grounding in the sport to early school games or backyard beginnings.

Most retain a strong link with their communities, continuing to play provincial rugby as well as meeting their extensive All Black commitments.

Rugby in the community

Community rugby thrives on input from a network of volunteers and school players are mostly coached by parents and willing teachers.

The Saturday morning ritual in rugby-playing households provides a valuable insight into everyday life in New Zealand- children scrambling out of bed on a cool winter’s morning, rummaging for their kit, lining up for a hearty breakfast and heading off to the local rugby ground with proud and patriotic parents who take the competition very seriously.

Small-town rugby clubs are often the hub of the community and provide a ready venue for social gatherings.