The first match on New Zealand soil was held at Athletic Park, Wellington, on 13 June 1908 between the returning All Golds and other recruits to benefit Albert Baskerville’s widowed mother. Over the next few months provincial fixtures were staged among Auckland, Wellington and Taranaki and between Otago and Southland. The first match in Auckland, against Wellington, was at Victoria Park on 22 August 1908.
Renowned All Blacks wing Albert Asher was a pivotal figure in Māori teams which toured Australia in 1908 and 1909. Another privately organised New Zealand team also crossed the Tasman in 1909.
Provincial rugby league
The Auckland Rugby League was formed in July 1909, and North Shore played City as the forerunner to an inter-club competition that started in 1910. By this time, league was also being played in Taranaki, Rotorua, Hawke’s Bay, Nelson, Marlborough and Southland.
The New Zealand Rugby League came into being in 1910 to host the first British touring team. Those Lions played only in Auckland (three games) and Rotorua and did little towards expanding the fledgling sport. However, it flourished in Auckland – with champion centre Karl Ifwersen the stellar attraction – to such a degree that in 1917 the Auckland Rugby Union was permitted to make local rule changes to combat the threat.
Spreading what was seen as a ‘rebel’ code in the face of formidable rugby union opposition proved tough going outside Auckland. The union had unbreakable links with government agencies, local bodies which controlled playing fields, school authorities and newspapers. Obtaining suitable venues for major matches and access to schools haunted rugby league and stunted its growth for decades.
Growth was also affected by the First World War. Although leagues were set up in Canterbury and Wellington in 1912, the war forced several provinces into recess. Post-war recovery was very slow and, Auckland apart, all momentum had been lost.
Clash of codes
There was drama in Napier before New South Wales played Hawke’s Bay in 1912. Rugby union officials dismantled a temporary grandstand at the recreation ground on the eve of the match, having unsuccessfully attempted to charge a considerable fee for its use. But their rugby league counterparts, assisted by local residents and members of the visiting team, worked overnight to rebuild the structure in time for kick-off.
The gates of New Zealand’s main sporting stadiums were long shut to rugby league. After the inaugural game in 1908, it was 82 years before rugby league returned to Athletic Park in Wellington. Lancaster Park authorities in Christchurch used the payment of rugby league players as a reason to refuse admittance to the game between 1921 and 1996, while turning a blind eye to handsomely paid English cricketers gracing their turf.
Auckland’s Eden Park hosted provincial matches in 1919 but nothing more until the 1988 World Cup final. The Carisbrook ground in Dunedin was never available.
Situated in a hollow below Parnell Rise in Auckland, and named after New Zealand Rugby League president James Carlaw, Carlaw Park was heralded as rugby league’s field of dreams when it was developed from a market garden and opened on 25 June 1921. By the early 1990s Carlaw Park had been overtaken by bigger and more comfortable Auckland venues such as Mount Smart Stadium and North Harbour Stadium. The last games were played there in 2002.
Won’t let the girls play
It is not clear when women started playing rugby league, but by the 1920s a few teams were up and running. They weren’t encouraged. An attempt by an Auckland women’s rugby league team to play at Carlaw Park (under amended rules with the presence of three ‘matrons’, two of them nurses) was firmly rejected by league officials.
With Carlaw Park established and drawing big crowds in Auckland, James Carlaw planned to secure playing fields throughout the country from the proceeds of the 1926–27 New Zealand tour of Britain. The venture was a financial and public-relations nightmare. The New Zealand Rugby Union objected to the rival code calling its players All Blacks, and Australian officials argued that an Australasian team should have been selected. Conflict between the coach and players resulted in most of the forwards being cut adrift from the team.
The fallout from the 1926–27 tour included a distraught Carlaw resigning his presidency.