Because of travel difficulties many of the early inter-provincial matches in New Zealand took the form of an annual fixture between neighbours or between larger unions with greater resources. An important development in inter-provincial competition on a wider scale came in 1904 when the first Ranfurly Shield match was played.
The Ranfurly shield was donated by the Earl of Ranfurly, Governor of New Zealand (1897–1904). The shield was initially designed as a trophy for football (not rugby) and had to be modified to show a rugby game. The shield is competed for by a challenge system. It was first awarded to Auckland, which had the best results in the 1903 season. In the first challenge on 6 August 1904, Wellington defeated Auckland 6–3 to lift what has become known colloquially as the Log o’ Wood.
Until the introduction of a national provincial championship in 1976, the Ranfurly Shield was the only nationwide rugby competition for New Zealand provincial unions. Now contested in tandem with the league-based championship, many consider the shield to be the most prestigious trophy in New Zealand domestic rugby. Over the years many small communities and provinces have succumbed to ‘shield fever’ in the build-up to Ranfurly Shield challenges. Holding the shield became an important symbol of provincial pride. Many of the so-called minnows of New Zealand rugby have enjoyed success in the past, contributing to the shield’s ‘David and Goliath’ tradition. In the professional era the gap between the David's and Goliath's of New Zealand rugby has widened. Upsets on the scale of Marlborough's famous 1973 triumph over Canterbury will probably never be repeated although Southland's 2009 victory over Canterbury saw the shield move New Zealand's southern most union for the first time in fifty years. Southland's success did much to re-kindle the belief that a return to the 'good old day's of shield rugby' had arrived.
In 1976 a National Provincial Championship was established. The provincial unions were divided into two divisions, the first consisting of 11 teams – seven from the North Island and four from the South. The Division Two was divided between the two islands. The bottom-placed Division One team from the South Island played the winner of the southern Division Two in a promotion–relegation match. The lowest-placed North Island team in the top division was automatically relegated and replaced by the winner of the northern Division Two. In 1985 a united Division Two and a Division Three were created. The top teams in Divisions Two and Three were automatically promoted and the bottom teams in Divisions One and Two were relegated. From 1992 the champion in each division was determined after semi-finals and a final following the round robin.
Further changes in 2006 reflected the increasingly professional nature of rugby. Two separate competitions were created: a top tier of 14 teams competed in a fully professional competition (ITM Cup from 2010) and the Heartland Championship was contested by 12 amateur or semi-professional unions.
There are nearly 40 inter-provincial trophies at stake on the New Zealand rugby calendar.
One of the oldest is the Rundle Cup, the symbol of rugby supremacy on the west coast of the South Island. West Coast and Buller initially competed for the Molloy Cup in 1896 before it was replaced by the Rundle Cup in 1911. Another significant local trophy in the upper South Island is the Seddon Shield, a challenge trophy for representative teams from Buller, Nelson Bays, Marlborough and West Coast. First competed for in 1906 it is named in honour of the former Premier and Coaster Richard John Seddon.
The Hanan Shield first presented in 1946 by A.E.S. Hanan, the Mayor of Timaru is another inter-provincial trophy of some note. The Hanan Shield is competed for annually by South Canterbury, Mid Canterbury and North Otago.