New Zealand national Rugby League team

New Zealand national Rugby League team
Image by Bernd Hildebrandt from Pixabay

The first makings of a New Zealand rugby football schism, such as seen in other countries was the creation of Albert Henry Baskerville who set out to sign a group of professional rugby players to tour England. Baskerville’s team of professional “All Golds”, on their way to England, made a stop over in Australia, playing a 3-game series against a professional New South Wales rugby team. From there, they went on to England and for the first time, played by the Northern Union’s rules. On their return home, they stopped over in Australia to play another 10 games against clubs from the newly formed New South Wales Rugby League.

During the All Gold’s tour, their founder, Baskerville fell ill and later died of pneumonia. 13 June 1908 saw the first game of rugby league played by the Northern Union’s new rules on New Zealand soil; as a benefit match for Baskerville’s widowed mother. The first match in New Zealand was played at Wellington on 13 June 1908 before a crowd of nearly 7, 000, which saw an exhibition between two teams drawn from the touring side.

Rugby league had now its sights firmly set on New Zealand, however, the New Zealand Rugby Union’s infiltration into every aspect of New Zealand society, government and business would prove a lot tougher than the unions of Australia or England. The NZRU took it upon themselves to pressure potential converts, officials, sponsors and ground owners into not giving the rugby league upstarts any room to move. The Wellington Rugby Union even went to the length of naming, under false pretenses, famous players in the team lineup for a match at Athletic Park in order to lure interest away from a Northern Union match being played in Petone on the same day.

None of this succeeded in stopping the establishment of the game and by 1910 it was being played in Auckland, Taranaki, Rotorua, Nelson, Southland, Wanganui, Marlborough, Invercargill, Hawke’s Bay, and South Auckland. The New Zealand Rugby League was formed in 1909 and other provinces joined the league.

In the year after that, Auckland Rugby League became the first to start a regular competition. The Auckland League had a full season in 1912, with its headquarters at Eden Park. That same year saw the formation of Wellington’s local rugby league competition.

In 1913 Henry Thacker set up the Canterbury Rugby Football League, donating the Thacker Shield.

Rugby league made great advances since the Second World War. It was well established between 1918 and 1939, but many strong leagues went into recess between 1939 and 1945, never to revive, or to suffer severely from the loss of players. Rotorua, Otago, and Northland were examples. Those areas, strong provinces before the war, are only starting to make good progress.

Ironically, New Zealand founded the fully international rugby league, was responsible for strengthening English professional rugby and gave the rugby rebels of Australia a leg up, which resulted in the formation of the New South Wales Rugby League. However, they weren’t able to replicate their overseas success to the same levels on home soil.

By the early 1990s New South Wales’ club competition matches were being broadcast in New Zealand with far greater viewing numbers than that of domestic rugby union.