Unsporting behaviour? - NZ Natives' rugby tour of 1888/89

A dangerous game

Although hacking (tackling players carrying the ball by kicking them) and tripping had been banned in the 1870s to make the game safe enough to appeal to gentlemen, rugby remained dangerous. After the death in 1877 of an Auckland player who had charged head first into an opponent, the coroner pronounced that ‘the game of football was only worthy of savages’. A staggering 71 rugby players are said to have died in Yorkshire alone in just three seasons in the early 1890s.

Ryan notes that the Natives were also accused of over-vigorous play; one match threatened to ‘develop into a free fight’. A press summary of the tour asserted that ‘their knowledge of all that is unfair surpassed their acquaintance with the legitimate game’. But a comparison of the two fractures known to have been suffered by their opponents with the fact that ‘scarcely a member of their team … has not been at one time pretty seriously bent or broken’ suggests that they were at least as much sinned against as sinning.

Accusations of poor sportsmanship in the press reached a crescendo after the England test on 16 February. Coming off their second seven-game winning streak, and having beaten Ireland 13–4 and played creditably against Wales (losing 5–nil), the Natives were expected to compete strongly in this, the most important match of the tour. However, they seem to have suffered from some home-town refereeing. (The official concerned, Rowland Hill, happened to also be the Secretary of the Rugby Football Union.)

Late in a closely contested first half, England was awarded two tries over the protests of Native players who claimed to have touched the ball down first. Soon after half-time, things got much worse. When an English player lost his knickerbockers in a tackle, he threw the ball down and Native players encircled him to preserve his modesty as he left the field. Meanwhile, another Englishman picked the ball up and touched down between the posts. When Hill awarded the try, three of the Natives walked off in protest and could not be persuaded to return for several minutes. The game continued without them, England winning 7-nil.

The Rugby Football Union dictated the Natives’ written apology for the ‘insults’ they had ‘offered to … officials’. The tour was then allowed to continue, but there was to be no official farewell at its end. This extreme reaction confirmed the importance of sport in strengthening the bonds of empire: activities seen as threatening the established order of social behaviour could not be tolerated.

Temptations

Alcohol was another matter for concern. Some of the Native players ‘innocently made the most of the many good things that Lord Sheffield’s genuine hospitality provided’ before the match against Middlesex. Two who were missing when the team photograph was to be taken were found asleep in some bushes, and the Natives’ play that day was ‘void of combination’.

Later in the tour, the game against Oxford was lost because ‘festivities at Cambridge the night before had not done our boys much good’; and a team member involved in an altercation after a banquet in Belfast was left to sleep in a cell overnight. A perception that the Māori were far from naive tended to divert attention from the dangers of alcohol. They were probably no more vulnerable to its temptations than many later wearers of the black uniform.

Of sexual activity little evidence has survived. However, one of the least successful players on the field – he had been recruited straight from Te Aute College – apparently excelled off it, earning the nickname ‘Don Juan’: ‘We are all wondering how he explained away at home the diamond ring he was given by a barmaid in England’. And one of the most successful players was widely believed to have died of syphilis contracted during the tour.

Punch welcomes the Native Team:

You’ve come then, brother Maoris,
at us to have a shy
And if we guard our glories
we’ll have to mind our eye.
Our camp you seem to flurry,
and stir its calm content
You’ve flabbergasted Surrey,
and scrumpulated Kent.
Your kicking, brother Maoris,
has given us the kick,
You’re well matched all, well “on the ball”
And strong and straight and quick.
By jove this is a rum age,
when a New Zealand team
Licks Bull at goal and scrummage;
it beats McCauley’s dream.
You‘re welcome, brother Maoris,
Here’s wishing you good luck.
With you there pace and power is
and skill and lots of pluck
A trifle “rough”? Why, just so?
but that you’ll mend no doubt
And win, all sportsmen trust so,
in many a friendly bout.

From Ryan, Forerunners of the All Blacks

How to cite this page: 'Unsporting behaviour? - NZ Natives' rugby tour of 1888/89', URL: http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/culture/nz-natives-rugby-tour/unsporting-behaviour, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 20-Dec-2012