First national stars
Until the 1890s most sporting loyalties were local. The first sporting figures attracting national pride were individual performers.
Joe Scott, a long-distance walker, was the first. He won his first race in 1875, aged 13 and weighing only 23 kilograms. He became a professional, beating all comers in New Zealand. When he visited Britain in 1887–88 his wins included a world championship belt for walking over 363 miles in 72 hours. At Dunedin’s Caledonian sports in 1889 Scott was congratulated on bringing honour to the colony and the band played ‘See the conquering hero comes’.
Another local sporting hero was the racehorse Carbine, who won the Melbourne Cup in November 1890 in record time and carrying the heaviest weight ever to victory (66 kilograms) following a series of wins over the previous three years. New Zealanders exalted in the victory of ‘the Maorilander’ and there was great celebration across the country.
Bob Fitzsimmons became world boxing champion in three divisions – middleweight (1891), heavyweight (1897) and light-heavyweight (1903). But it was not until the 20th century that he was widely fêted at home. When he returned in 1910, 1,000 people greeted him at Timaru railway station and the mayor welcomed him in the Theatre Royal.
Two boxers with international success – Billy Murphy, who became featherweight champion of the world in 1890, and Bob Fitzsimmons, middleweight champion the following year – did not initially attract much local following. Both were often described as ‘Australian’ pugilists although Fitzsimmons had been a Timaru blacksmith and Murphy insisted he was ‘not an Australian, but an Auckland boy, having been born in Chapel Square [in the central city]’.1
As steamships made international travel easier and the telegraph facilitated speedier transmission of international news, New Zealanders began to show interest in national teams. A New Zealand rugby team went to Australia in 1884 and, after its unbeaten tour, was welcomed back by the governor and the ships in Wellington Harbour were decorated. The team had been selected through nomination by four provincial associations, some of which gave their returning players medals.
Caught with his pants down
During a rugby match between England and the New Zealand Native team, an English player lost his trousers in a tackle. The crowd roared with laughter and, discovering his predicament, the player stopped and threw down the ball. The Native team formed a ring to shield him from view, but an English player picked up the ball, scored and was awarded the try by the referee. The Native team complained and three team members walked off in protest.
The 1888–89 Native rugby team, which played 108 matches in New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Australia, attracted some public interest. But its reputation in New Zealand became tainted by allegations of professionalism (during a time when amateurism was valued), alleged bribery, rough play and unsportsmanlike conduct. This limited the team’s appeal in a national sense. However, it was important as the first team from New Zealand to visit the old country. Also, it highlighted the importance that Māori and Māori culture (especially the use of the haka) would play in sporting nationalism. Significantly, the Native team was the first to use the silver fern on a black background as a team emblem (the 1884 team had worn blue jerseys with gold ferns).
Also using the silver fern on black were two athletics teams, one which toured New South Wales in 1890 and a second which went to England and France in 1892. They did not do well enough to stir national pride.
Leonard Cuff, a Christchurch insurance agent, was captain of the first New Zealand cricket team in 1894. He had also founded the New Zealand Amateur Athletics Association in 1887, organised and participated in the two touring athletics teams of 1890 and 1892, won the New Zealand long jump championship three times and played rugby for Canterbury. As if this was not enough, Cuff was also a member of the International Olympic Committee which organised the first modern Olympics in 1896.
In the 1890s national associations were formed in the major sports, partly to facilitate the selection of representative teams. While five English cricket teams had toured in the 30 years before 1894, they had played provincial groupings. In February 1894 the first national cricket team was put onto the field. Later that year the New Zealand cricket council was established. In rugby, the New Zealand union was established in 1892 and the next year a national team, with newly chosen colours of black singlet with a silver fern, toured Australia. They were welcomed home by the new premier, Richard Seddon, who praised the ‘manly way they had upheld the credit of the country’.2