Rugby is undeniably one of the most popular sports in the world by virtue of its worldwide fanbase, which is estimated to be in the hundreds of millions. The sport does indeed have a following in arguably every country and across every continent in the world and is considered to be the antecedent to various other similar sports like American football and Australian rules football. There are also a number of countries that consider rugby to be as much a part of their culture as it is a sport. Rugby is such a crucial part of these countries’ identities that it is considered their national sport. There is however one country where rugby is law.
What country is rugby the most popular? Rugby is the most popular sport in New Zealand, where it is widely regarded as their unofficial national sport. Since its inception in the late 19th century, rugby enjoyed an almost religious following that transcends demographics like age, gender, and occupation. Presently, there are well over 140,000 registered rugby players in the southwestern Pacific nation despite its relatively small population of a little over 5 million people.
Introduction and Mainstream Acceptance
The introduction, adaptation, and subsequent success of rugby in New Zealand can largely be credited to one man – Charles Monro. Fondly dubbed the “father of New Zealand” rugby, Monro got introduced to the sport while studying at a public school in England.
Upon returning to New Zealand, Monro introduced the sport to the Nelson Town Football Club and played a huge role in organizing the first-ever rugby match to be played in the country when he suggested that the club play against Nelson College.
As providence would have it, the then-headmaster of Nelson College was a former student of Rugby School – the Warwickshire-based institution where the sport was invented in 1823 – and agree to Monro’s proposal.
The historic match took place on May 14, 1870, in Nelson in front of a crowd of around 200 spectators. The Nelson Town Football Club won the clash 2-0 and despite the poor coverage of the match by local newspapers and the failure to mention that the sport that was played was actually rugby, its popularity spread across New Zealand like wildfire.
A Cultural Norm
Though rugby was a little late to the party in New Zealand as compared to Australian rules football, soccer, and cricket, it subsequently leap-frogged the three to become the country’s beloved sport and ideal pastime.
New Zealand’s rugged terrain and wet climate particularly helped the growth of rugby since the conditions were more favorable for it as compared to other sports like soccer or cricket which requires additional equipment.
Unlike in England and other neighboring nations where rugby was largely played by the educated middle-class who resided in suburbs near growing urban centers, rugby in New Zealand thrived across all communities and especially in rural areas where natives like the Māori indulged in it as early as 1876.
Rugby was particularly beloved since rules were applied sparingly allowing people from all walks of life to participate. The duration of rugby matches varied and there was no set number of players per team. It was also not unheard of at the time for teams to play a combination of sports in one fixture such as say Australian rules football or soccer in one half and rugby in another.
In the 1880s and 1890s, rules gradually began to be introduced as well as the awarding of points to encourage the flow of the game and discourage excessive kicking which was predominantly a characteristic of soccer.
Rules were also put in place to discourage rough practices like kicking one’s opponents as well as to formalize the inclusion of match officials (referees) and uniforms. Perhaps the most significant development was the formation of the New Zealand Rugby Union in 1892. At the time, there were already around 5000 registered rugby players.
Opposition and Unrivaled Dominance
Things were not all rosy for New Zealand, especially in the early to mid-1900s. Despite the success they enjoyed over their first tours of England and Australia, a controversy in a subsequent match against Wales put them at loggerheads with the Home Nations collective (England, Ireland, Wales, and Scotland) for a period through to the 1930s.
The First and Second World Wars also stifled their development due to the suspension of play. Perhaps their biggest challenge at the time was when Māori players were deni