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Rugby in New Zealand

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Rugby Union in New Zealand

If you have come to Aotearoa New Zealand to experience some culture, then rugby is a great place to start. Rugby, or more specifically, rugby union, is the official national sport of New Zealand with its national team, the All Blacks, being one of the top international rugby union teams in the world.Whether you catch a game in a sports bar or experience the electric atmosphere in a stadium, rugby is a great way to immerse yourself in some Kiwi culture. Check out The Best Places to Watch Rugby in New Zealand.

But first, if you’re kind of new to this whole rugby thing, or you just want to know how the sport got so famous in New Zealand, then check out the history, the Haka, the rugby teams and competitions below!

What is the Difference Between Rugby Union and Rugby League?

Yes, just to make things complicated there are two types of rugby in New Zealand. Rugby Union is the more popular version of the sport played by the All Blacks, and is generally what people are referring to when they simply say “rugby”.

Rugby Union and Rugby League used to be the same game before politics got involved and a few rule changes were made here and there. You can read more about that in What is The Difference Between Rugby League and Rugby Union?

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A Quick History of Rugby in New Zealand

Rugby originated from the UK so unsurprisingly, the English brought the sport to New Zealand with its mass migration into New Zealand. In 1870, Charles John Monro, son of the then-Speaker of the House of Representatives, brought the game to New Zealand. The first game of rugby union to be played was at Nelson College on the 14 May 1870. From then on, cities around New Zealand took up the game. By the mid-1870s, the game had been taken up by the majority of New Zealand.

Things got a bit more formal after that, with unions being formed across the country. In 1888, New Zealand played against the British Isles showing that they could compete with other nations.

The first Rugby World Cup was hosted in New Zealand and Australia in 1987 where the national New Zealand team, the All Blacks, were crowned the first world champions. They also won in 2011 and 2015. Domestically, competitions have been carried out in New Zealand such as the Super Rugby, ITM Cup, Heartland Championship and the Ranfurly Shield.

You can learn more about the history of New Zealand rugby at the Rugby Museum in Palmerston North.

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The Haka in Rugby

Those international viewers watching New Zealand play rugby often have their introduction to the Maori culture with the famous “Haka”. The Haka is described as an ancestral war chant or challenge. Although there are many variations of the Haka performed by different iwi (tribes) across New Zealand, the “Ka Mate” haka is the most common one performed by the All Blacks (and most national teams) at the beginning of every rugby game.

The Ka Mate Haka originated at an ancient Maori settlement called Opotaka, near Turangi, where a Maori chief found refuge after being on the run from an enemy tribe. While this chief was hiding from the tribe in a kumara (sweet potato) pit, he uttered the words: “Ka Mate, ka mate, Ka Ora, ka ora” (I will die, I will die, I will live, I will live).

Learn more about the Maori culture in The Maori Culture in New Zealand.

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National New Zealand Rugby Union Teams

  • The All Blacks are the men’s national senior rugby union team
  • The Black Ferns are the women’s national senior rugby team
  • Junior All Blacks are the men’s under 23-years-old national team
  • Maori All Blacks are a national team traditionally playing international teams touring New Zealand
  • Heartland XV is made up of players who have participated in the previous season’s Heartland Championship
  • Sevens are made up of a team of seven rather than the usual 15 players
  • Under 21s
  • Under 20s
  • Under 19s
  • Schoolboys is a rugby union team for secondary schoolboys.
Tourism NZ© Tourism NZ

Regional New Zealand Rugby Union Teams

  • Christchurch Crusaders
  • Auckland Blues
  • Hamilton Chiefs
  • Wellington Hurricanes
  • Dunedin Highlanders
  • Southland Stags
  • Tasman Makos
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New Zealand Rugby Competitions

Many of these competitions you can catch at any sports bar in New Zealand, as well as multiple stadiums around the country.

Check out The Best Places to Watch Rugby in New Zealand to find out where you can catch a game of rugby in New Zealand!

National Competitions

  • Super Rugby is a competition featuring teams from South America, Australia and New Zealand
  • ITM Cup is the premier national competition in New Zealand
  • The Heartland Competition is an amateur national competition
  • The Ranfurly Shield has been around since 1908. It is contested on a challenge basis, meaning the holder of the shield defends their shield-holding status. If they are defeated in a match they must give the shield to the new champions.

International Competitions

  • The Rugby World Cup is considered the ultimate rugby competition occurring every four years
  • Tri-Nations is a competition featuring the strongest teams from the Southern Hemisphere
  • Bledisloe Cup is a competition between New Zealand and Australia
  • World Cup Sevens is the world cup of the sevens rugby teams rather than the usual 15 players. It is held every four years
  • World Rugby Sevens Series is an annual international sevens competition.

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Finally, if your whole trip is surrounding the sport, be sure to check out Sports Break Advice: How to Prepare to Travel for Sport.


The information in this guide has been compiled from our extensive research, travel and experiences across New Zealand and the South Pacific, accumulated over more than a decade of numerous visits to each destination. Additional sources for this guide include the following:

Our editorial standards: At NZ Pocket Guide, we uphold strict editorial standards to ensure accurate and quality content.

About The Author

Robin C.

This article has been reviewed and approved by Robin, who is the co-founder of NZ Pocket Guide. With more than 15 years of experience in the New Zealand tourism industry, Robin has co-founded three influential tourism businesses and five additional travel guides for South Pacific nations. He is an expert in New Zealand travel and has tested over 600 activities and 300+ accommodations across the country.

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