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The oval ball was first contested in New Zealand at Nelson in 1870. The rules for the new game of rugby union had only recently been brought back from England, but they quickly caught on, with clubs being formed around the country from the early 1870s. In 1882 the first overseas rugby team – from New South Wales – played in New Zealand. Two years later the first team from this country went on an overseas tour – again to New South Wales – and won all of its eight matches.
The rapid spread of rugby in this country resulted in the formation of the New Zealand Rugby Union in 1892. Even then, players at club and provincial level aspired to the national team, which became known as the All Blacks on a tour of Britain in 1905. It is said that the name was the result of a printer’s error, with “all backs” – a journalist’s reference to the team’s speed – appearing as “all blacks”. From 1901 the team’s jersey and shorts were black, so the new name – even if accidental – was appropriate, and stuck.
The ranks of the All Blacks have been filled with individuals of varying ethnic backgrounds, including Maori, Polynesian and European, all bound by their abilities on the rugby field. Another distinctive aspect of the team is the traditional Maori haka, performed before each game. The All Blacks present the ancient performing art form to the world and, at the same time, may also manage to unnerve their opposition. On their tour of Britain the 1905 team performed a haka which has been attributed to the famous chief Te Rauparaha, but it may have been performed by an earlier visiting Maori rugby team in 1888-9.
The All Black jersey is one of the nation’s most prestigious sporting uniforms, and in 2001 the number of elite players to have worn it reached 1,000. This country’s traditional rival on the rugby field has been the Springboks from South Africa, but serious competition is now provided by the Wallabies from across the Tasman. For nearly a century the All Blacks have maintained a fine international record, one of their first achievements being the winning of the first Rugby World Cup tournament in 1987.
Historically, New Zealand rugby fans have shown great dedication in the pursuit of their national game. Before the days of live television coverage they would rise from their beds in the middle of the night and huddle around radio sets and teapots to follow important matches on the other side of the world. Back home, they regularly wrapped up against the elements in order to watch their team in action.
And despite the best intentions of the national selectors, every rugby fan has an opinion on who should – and shouldn’t – be wearing the exclusive All Blacks jersey. The true fans’ involvement can also extend to providing a running commentary on the game. Sound advice is offered from the terraces and the stands – “Kick it!” or perhaps “Pass it!” – as the fans urge on the men in black. And if their team doesn’t do so well on the day, there is always the referee to blame.