Over the last 128 years the name ‘Barbarians’ has gained a distinguished place in our rugby dictionary.
Formed in England in 1890 as an invitation side which played matches over the Easter weekend, the club gained a New Zealand connection in 1935 when one of the touring All Blacks, Hugh McLean, spent an evening with one of the Barbarians founders, Emile de Lissa.
Two years later, in 1937, McLean was approached to field an invitation side to play a benefit match for the Thames Valley sub-unions, who were suffering financially. McLean had already taken on the Barbarian belief that rugby has a special spirit that must be encouraged in young and old rugby folk. As a non-profit organisation, the club aimed to use any money gained to nurture or improve the game.
McLean and his great friend Ron Bush assembled a team of old stars and promising youngsters for the game at Thames. The match was highly successful, the Thames sub-union bank account was repaired, the players enjoyed each other’s wish to play free-flowing rugby, and the idea of invitation teams picked for special matches blossomed.
McLean and Bush planned further matches, and were delighted when the foundation club in England gave them permission to use the Barbarians name. The timing was perfect, and what became the New Zealand Barbarian Rugby Football Club fielded an invitation side against Auckland in 1938. In their bright scarlet jerseys, with a bouncing lamb on the left breast, the first real NZ Barbarians side defeated Auckland 43-16 on Eden Park, with brilliant rugby which relit the flames that the Springboks had doused the year before.
Following the Second World War the Barbarians, calling on the heroes of the fabled 2nd NZEF ‘Kiwis’ team, played benefit matches and exhibitions which spread the gospel of adventurous rugby in Auckland and in many parts of the North Island.
The Barbarians stepped up to international level when they fielded a mixture of 1956 Springboks and All Blacks against the Coronation Shield Districts XV, a game hastily arranged at Eden Park midweek while the Springboks were awaiting their journey home.
During the ’60s and afterwards the Auckland Rugby Union formed an injured players insurance scheme and the Barbarians were central figures in many sparkling fundraising Sunday matches against Maori and Auckland teams.
During the ’70s, Barbarians teams toured within New Zealand and Australia and in 1987 took a very successful team to the UK, containing many of the players who were to win the first Rugby World Cup later that season.
In the meantime the Barbarians found their first permanent home in the early 1970s with the purchase of a clubhouse in Cricket Avenue. This eventually became crammed with priceless rugby memorabilia and was a fitting headquarters in which to welcome the famous and fervent right folk from all over the city, the country and the world.
Sadly, the headquarters at 17 Cricket Avenue are there no longer, having made way for the redevelopment of Eden Park for the 2011 Rugby World Cup.
As well as playing in major benefit games, the Barbarians developed a programme of educational midweek matches against college First XVs in the wider Auckland area.
But as professionalism changed the face of rugby, so have the Barbarians had to adapt to these changes.
While access to players for college games is now more difficult because of professional player contracts, insurance restrictions and sometimes coaches’ instructions, the Barbarians have had to look at other sources for players to ensure one of the very important and always enjoyable activities of the Baabaas continues each year.
And opportunities will always occur. In 2003 the Barbarians had the distinction of being invited to play against England at Twickenham, the home-coming game for England, after it won the 2003 Rugby World Cup.
Since 1989 the Barbarians have maintained contact with primary schools in the Auckland region through an annual fun day. This has become a significant event in the Barbarian season and has grown in size and quality to the extent that some 40 teams and more than 700 boys and girls participate each year.
With support for the primary schools’ fun day still growing, and with college games still an important part of the Barbarians calendar, the Barbarians have entered into a contract to support secondary schools rugby. So, in a joint effort with Novotel Hotels and Williments, the club sponsors the secondary schools Top 4 First XV tournament, which also caters for co-ed schools, and the schools’ regional tournaments.
In 2009 the club extended its support to a growing development in rugby – the Under 85kg competitions which are seen as an important part of ‘grassroots’ rugby.
This grade is finding strong favour among a number of unions, and this led to the Barbarians, who term the grade ‘Middleweight’, to annually select a middleweight team for a game against Australian counterparts.
In 2012 a NZ Barbarians Schools side was fielded and did the club proud with two sterling victories over their Australian and Samoan counterparts. In 2013 the club is sponsoring the NZ Area Schools side, for top young players outside the main urban competitions.
So the changing rugby tide has taken the Barbarians into a variety of new directions over the years.
The club is robust and enthusiastic about the future and determined to maintain its prominent contribution to the development of the game of rugby.