Otago Rugby History

Otago has played a significant and sometimes leading, role in the development and promotion of rugby in New Zealand; and rugby in Otago, historically and at present, is without peer as the sport with the widest and most avid public following.

Otago has a long and proud history (126 years as a union) of fostering rugby within its borders and of being a major contributor at national level through players, coaches and administrators. It could be argued that Otago’s contribution belies its population and commercial size.

Some of the great innovators of New Zealand rugby have been Otago men, including the originator of the All Black jersey and the first New Zealand captain under the aegis of the New Zealand Rugby Union, Tom Ellison, and the first All Black coach, Jimmy Duncan. Such influence more than a century ago has continued unbroken.

Otago has long been recognised as one of the four leading provinces and while demographics have altered the rugby landscape, Otago still lays claim to being among the leading five. Only Auckland, Canterbury and Wellington have contributed more All Blacks than Otago; the University club in Dunedin ranks, with Ponsonby in Auckland, as the provider of most All Blacks.

Since the National Provincial Championship (now the Air New Zealand Cup) began in 1976, Otago has won it twice – in 1991 (when there were no semifinals and no final) and in 1998. Otago have been finalists six times out of a possible 16 and semifinalists 11 times. This is a better record than Wellington, for example.

While Otago have not had the Ranfurly Shield since 1957, its record in shield matches is still impressive. Otago’s record in shield matches is just marginally less than 50 per cent (36 wins and 38 losses), which stands comparison with all other provincial unions except Auckland and Canterbury.

Otago had direct impact on the way the game was played in its earliest days but this influence did not die with the stagecoach. Men such as the two Cavanaghs, “Old Vic” and “Young Vic”, were generally regarded throughout New Zealand as coaches who took the game to new levels and this particularly applied to Vic Cavanagh jnr in the 1940s when the Ranfurly Shield was never north of the Waitaki River and when Otago in 1949 supplied 11 All Blacks and, without them, still retained the Shield.

The influence continued with Charlie Saxton, captain of the 2NZEF Kiwi army team that reintroduced rugby to Europe after World War II and the style and manner of the Kiwis’ play was taken into the All Blacks in 1967 when Saxton was manager and Fred Allen, one of the Kiwi players, was the coach. The 1967 All Blacks set a benchmark for those who followed, just as the Otago coaching line continued unbroken after Saxton (who succeeded Cavanagh as Otago coach) through Eric Watson, Laurie Mains, Gordon Hunter and Tony Gilbert.

Otago rugby at a first-class level has at times developed its own style, such as “the rucking game” developed by Cavanagh and honed by Saxton and which other teams tried to imitate; and later in the 90s when Hunter and then Gilbert developed the Cavanagh template and promoted a crowd-pleasing style of play that still relied on proper execution of the basics. It was under the tutelage of Gilbert that Otago players developed to the stage where they matched the feats of the teams of the 1940s and had a record number of All Blacks (eight on seven occasions in tests between 1999 and 2001). At one time, Otago had three All Black captains (Taine Randell, Anton Oliver and Tom Willis) in the same squad. (When the 1971 Lions first arrived in Dunedin, the first thing their celebrated coach, Carwyn James, did was seek out Vic Cavanagh).

Otago has also been among the forefront in the administration of the game. A Dunedin man, Samuel Sleigh, organised the first New Zealand team, in 1884, and another, Ned Parata, is acknowledged as the father of Maori rugby – it was he who organised the first national Maori team in 1910 and was the first Maori to serve on the New Zealand union. An Original All Black from Otago, Alex McDonald, served the game for the next 50 years, including two terms as All Black coach. Charlie Saxton, who was both a councillor on the New Zealand union and later its president, continued the Otago heritage of serving both their province and their country. 

Rugby in Otago is more than just about the elite level of players or the national level of coaching. It is a game that is carried in the soul of Otago people and developed a culture that embraces the whole province and into which succeeding generations of Otago University students are inculcated. Otago graduates around the world retain the strong loyalty to Otago they developed as students.

Few cities in the world embrace a test match as Dunedin does. Only Cardiff can compare with Dunedin as a city in which a rugby test is all-pervading. Visitors to Dunedin, including national figures, have often lauded Dunedin as a test city with the most outstanding atmosphere and “feel”. Not for nothing is Dunedin known as “Test City” at international time. There is also a practical side and Dunedin in 1993 provided the New Zealand Rugby Union with its first million-dollar gate. Tests in Dunedin are estimated to generate between $15 and $20 million economic benefits for the city and province.

The Otago hinterland has long been an essential part of Otago rugby, proving it is more than a city-based union. While demographics, social changes and farm mechanisation have meant fewer Country players play for Otago than did formerly, Country rugby remains an essential and integral part of the Union. It was for this reason that Otago successfully bid in 2003 to stage the national sevens in Queenstown, one of the tourist jewels of New Zealand.

Otago embraced the Highlanders – the name reflecting the area’s Scottish roots – when the Super 12 began in 1996 and although the franchise area is the least populous and the smallest commercially, the Highlanders have consistently performed well, being semifinalists on four occasions and finalists (and hosts) once.

Mindful of the continually changing dynamics of rugby, Otago works actively with its franchise partner unions North Otago and Southland, both in the playing and the administration of the game.

Key dates:

1881 April 22 - Carisbrook Ground Company registered

1886 November 22 - First international cricket match, Otago v Australia

1889 August 16 - Carisbrook Ground Company liquidated

1889 September 6 - Dunedin Amateur Ground Company formed

1907 June 27 - Carisbrook assets transferred to Otago Rugby Football Union

1908 May 30 - First Otago rugby defeat of international side, Anglo-Welsh

1908 June 30 - First rugby test, NZ v Anglo-Welsh

1930 June 21 - First All Black defeat (by Great Britain)

1936 August 1 - First Ranfurly Shield match

1955 March 11 - First cricket test begins

1956 Feb 3-6 - First NZ cricket test against West Indies at Carisbrook

1969 - Otago Rugby Football Union buys freehold to Carisbrook

1974 March 30 - First one day cricket international

1991 Otago wins NPC Division One

1992 September 27 - First extra time in a rugby match in New Zealand: Otago 26, North Harbour 23

1996 March 3 - First Super 12 match, Otago Highlanders 57, Queensland 17

1998 Otago wins NPC Division One