During the last three decades of the 19th century sporting codes became national institutions. There were three major drivers:
- transport improvements
- the need to organise local and provincial competitions
- the need to organise international contests.
From the 1870s improved coastal shipping and the spread of railways and telegraph communication made it easier for the sports participants of the main settlements to come together. Canterbury and Otago began an annual fixture in cricket as early as 1864. Rugby and rowing initiated interprovincial contacts from the 1870s, and there were national tournaments in bowls, rifle shooting, tennis and other sports from the 1880s.
The first interprovincial sporting contest in New Zealand resulted from the unexpected arrival of an Auckland cricket team in Wellington in March 1860. On an unprepared ground, and with several of their best players out of town, Wellington lost by four wickets.
To facilitate interprovincial fixtures and administer local competitions, provincial organisations were needed. It began with cricket – provincial associations were formed in Wellington in 1875, Otago in 1876 and Canterbury in 1877. Rugby unions followed with Canterbury and Wellington in 1879, Otago in 1881, Auckland in 1883 and 14 more throughout New Zealand by 1893. Before long there was pressure for national bodies.
Improvements in transport, along with the growing population, stimulated increased international contact.
Overseas teams in New Zealand
The first sports team from overseas to tour New Zealand was George Parr’s All England cricket team, which extended its tour of Australia for matches against Canterbury and Otago in January 1864.
Another English team toured in 1877, followed by one from Australia in 1878. New South Wales rugby teams toured in 1882 and 1886, and a British team arrived in 1888. Rugby and cricket tours were regular events from then on.
Australian athletics, football, swimming and tennis teams were touring New Zealand by the early 20th century, as well as professional athletes and cyclists from Australia, Britain and the United States.
New Zealand competes overseas
New Zealand horses were sent to compete in Australian races from the late 1850s.
The first sports team to tour overseas was a Canterbury cricket team, which played in Victoria early in 1879. A representative New Zealand rugby team toured Australia in 1884 and the New Zealand Native team embarked on a gruelling year-long tour of Britain and Australia in 1888.
A number of New Zealand athletes, boxers and rowers also performed well overseas from the late 1880s.
These international contests required national organisations to arrange tours and pick representative teams. Almost all of the national administrative bodies for men's sport were formed during the two decades after 1885, as the standard of communication between the four main cities and some of the larger provincial towns further improved. All of these bodies were based in the main cities, with the brief exception of the Lawn Tennis Association, which started life in Napier before moving to Christchurch.
Rugby takes over
Cricket was the ‘national game’ in New Zealand until the late 19th century, in the sense that it was the most widely played sport, and was probably only surpassed by horse racing for spectator interest. However, it was eventually overtaken by rugby in terms of participation and interest. Although the two sports were not in direct competition as one took place in summer and the other in winter, the consistent international success of New Zealand rugby teams compared to the consistent failure of its cricket teams soon captured greater public imagination.