Sport plays a major part in Taranaki life, and the region has a record of success and national representation in many codes. The area is also known for some sports that depend on local conditions, such as surfing and surf lifesaving around the coast, or skiing on Mt Taranaki. Other sports are based on local occupations such as wood-chopping.
Teams of armed constabulary (AC) members and locals were almost certainly playing rugby in the early 1870s, only a year or so after New Zealand’s first recorded game in Nelson. The first official clubs – Taranaki (New Plymouth) and Egmont (Hāwera/Waihī) – were formed in 1874. These were joined soon after by Pukearuhe AC, Urenui, Tikorangi, Beach School and Pātea.
The Taranaki Rugby Union was founded in 1885. Its colours were chocolate brown and white. Seven years later the union reverted to the earlier, unofficial colours of amber and black, which are still used in the 2010s.
Ferdinand the bull, Taranaki’s rugby mascot, was created in the early 1950s and named after the Spanish bovine hero in Munroe Leaf’s 1936 book The story of Ferdinand. ‘Ferdie’ was actually the preserved head-skin of a real, massive Hereford bull, whose roar was also recorded by the local radio station. Ferdie’s head – with a series of attached bodies – endured until 2002. He was accorded an honourable retirement after leading Taranaki, both at home and away, for 45 years – and is now on display at Puke Ariki museum.
In 1956 a draw with the touring South African Springbok team began a golden era for Taranaki rugby. After taking the Ranfurly Shield from Otago in 1957, Taranaki held it for two seasons and 13 matches. The successes of 1958 and 1959 have never been fully repeated, although the shield returned to the province for another 15 gripping games in 1963–65. Taranaki won the shield from Auckland in 1996 but it was lost in its second defence. Seventy-five Taranaki locals have played for the All Blacks.
There are world-renowned surfing spots around the entire rugged Taranaki coast, and the coastal road from New Plymouth to Hāwera is known as ‘Surf Highway 45’. Surfers come from around the world to such classic Taranaki breaks as Stent Road, Spot X (Waiwhakaiho) and the Kūmara Patch (Ōkato).
Local tradition states that in 1950 Colin McComb, of New Plymouth’s East End Surf Life Saving Club, made one of New Zealand’s first true modern surfboards from plans in Popular Mechanics magazine.
By the late 1950s locals had begun a Taranaki surfing tradition that continued in the 2000s. The region has produced many national-class surfers, several of whom have competed at international level – including Paige Hareb of Ōakura, who was prominent in the early 2000s.
The region produces some of the country’s best-known surfboard designers, including Del, Tom Smithers and Monsta (Jamie Montgomery). Because of the tough surf and rocky coastline, use of leg ropes became a necessity and they were soon adopted through the country.
John Edward (Ned) Shewry from Kōhuratahi was the ‘gun’ at Eltham’s chopping carnivals before the First World War. Described as ‘the greatest champion [axeman]’ by sports journalist Wallie Ingram, Shewry’s axe-wielding skills are still remembered with awe. One story of Shewry’s large handicap is now legendary. He had to start chopping long after other competitors had begun, and one day an elderly lady complained: ‘It’s not fair the way that fellow Shewry chops. … He waits until the others have been chopping for seconds and seconds, and are tired, and then he starts! No wonder he wins, they’re always too tired to keep up with him.’ 1
The sport of chopping and sawing arose because of the hundreds of professional bushmen and back-country folk who felled the native forests of the region. Between 1904 and 1915 the Eltham Axemen’s Carnival was one of the best-known competitions in the world, attracting competitors from Australia and the United States. Locals who have achieved national fame in the sport include Ben and Joe Newstroski, Ned Shewry, Merv Jensen, Leo Pittams, Jack Stachurski, Mick Herlihy, Whata Green, and Leo and Barry Old.
The Moller Majorettes were one of New Zealand’s top marching teams during the late 1970s and early 1980s. They won the New Zealand Marching Championships in 1981, but disbanded soon after. Taranaki marching teams have regularly achieved national fame, and the Inglewood Vanguards were one of New Zealand’s champion teams for a number of years in the 1960s. Several of the region’s marching officials, including Bernie and Mary Plumb, were nationally acclaimed.