The introduction of (some) European sports to Aotearoa New Zealand: Part 1

The introduction of (some) European sports to Aotearoa New Zealand: Part 1
Opening of cycling season, 1896. From the collection of Coromandel Museum, used with permission.

Aotearoa New Zealand is a sporting nation. Hundreds of thousands of people around the country take to the sports field, court, pool, velodrome, and many other arenas every week to participate in their chosen sport. Many sports have European origins (click here for ngā taonga tākaro | traditional Māori games), arrived through European migration and have remained a part of the cultural landscape of Aotearoa New Zealand ever since. Explore the chronological origins of some of our popular sports. Cricket, cycling, and rugby union feature here in part one and click here for the origins of tennis, football, and netball.


The fifth most popular form of active recreation in Aotearoa, cycling has its origins in the 1860s. Once incredibly popular as a means of travel and commute, as the country transitioned into a driving nation, bicycles fell in popularity. The 1970s saw the rise in sports cycling which has remained popular however everyday cycling remains limited.

A report from the Auckland Regional Transport Authority noted that safety concerns were the main reason people were not cycling as part of their daily lives. Helmets were made mandatory for cyclists in 1994 and while it has decreased head injuries in children, evidence shows that being legally required to wear a helmet has decreased the number of adults using their bikes. In 2022 Cycling New Zealand’s Transformation Action Plan noted that wellbeing was a key tenet of the organisation.

Whanganui Regional Museum have in their collection an early cycling jacket and skirt made from wool and silk. Thankfully, acceptable cycling clothing has changed a lot since the late 19th century. Otherwise, there might be less people in Cycling New Zealand’s Walk of Champions, which details the many Kiwi who have excelled at cycling at an international level.


The first game of cricket was played on a beach in Paihia in the Bay of Islands in 1832. Children of Māori and missionaries were rewarded for finishing a school day, and rather than the eleven-a-side cricket you would expect, 50 children participated in the match. A decade later, the first match to keep official scores was played in Wellington.

International cricket was played in 1864, when the “All-England Eleven” came to Aotearoa following their matches in Australia. The first women’s game was played two years later in Nelson in 1866, and the first international women’s test was played against England in 1935.

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Image shared by the New Zealand Cricket Museum, and used with permission.

The origins of protective gear in cricket are not quite so early. The New Zealand Cricket Museum has an extensive collection of cricket memorabilia from our past and the development of batting gloves from leather finger pads through to Sophie Devine’s 2021 playing gloves made of PVC and other contemporary materials details a growing understanding of preventative healthcare in the sport through protective gear.

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Lincoln Primary School. Seven-a-side rugby team, 1928. Lincoln and Districts Historical Society collection (LHS41a) from Selwyn Stories.

Rugby Union

The first official game of our national sport was played in Nelson in May 1870, and only 14 years later in 1884, the first international representative team toured New South Wales in Australia. The team won all eight of its matches in 1884 – kicking off our long history of international success. The first jersey colour worn by teams representing Aotearoa was blue with a gold fern; a far cry from the internationally recognisable black with silver fern we know today. The New Zealand Native team touring Britain and Australia in 1888-89 were the first to unofficially wear black. Thomas Rangiwahia Ellison (former captain and member of the New Zealand Native team) proposed in 1893 to the New Zealand Rugby Football Union (now New Zealand Rugby) that the uniform be black with a silver fern.

When exercising, the body’s core temperature rises quickly but thermoregulation (the regulation of body temperature) happens more slowly. Temperature plays an important role in health, and competing at a national or international level in different environments has meant the development of synthetic fibre-based materials now used in All Blacks uniforms have allowed for an increase in environmental control to keep players warm or cool. The change in colour was the first significant alteration of our national uniform. Player comfort and health has been the second.

The New Zealand Rugby Museum’s website details the history of rugby in Aotearoa and is an amazing place to see collections relating to the history of men and women in Aotearoa playing rugby.