The history of the Mid Canterbury Rugby Union is closely linked to that of Canterbury and South Canterbury. Football was first played in Christchurch as early as 1854. Its rough and tumble soon struck a chord with the tough men who lived in Canterbury’s rural hinterland. Rugby as we know it today did not exist and clubs emerged playing ad-hoc rules and styles. One week they’d play Association football, the next a form of rugby or even the Victorian Rules game that was popular with Australians. Sometimes it was an amalgam of all three, made up on the day with few limits on team size.

When efforts were made to standardise the playing of football in New Zealand, the form of the game associated with Rugby School was seen as the most desirable. In 1876 the grandly named Kindersley Camilo Montague Lewin, who had played the Rugbeian game in England, persuaded the fledgling Christchurch Football Club to adopt it. Keen to head off Victorian Rules Lewin, the father of Canterbury rugby, set about organising the country’s first union of rugby clubs. He found a willing partner in Timaru’s George Hamersley, a former England rugby international who had set up two clubs. Their collaboration led to the formation in 1879 of the Canterbury Rugby Union, which stretched from Rangiora in the north to Timaru in the south.

South Canterbury split from its parent union in 1888. In 1904 South Canterbury spawned a sub-union, Ashburton County. This was taken under the wing of the Canterbury Rugby Union the following year before going it alone from 1927. The name was changed to Mid Canterbury in 1952.

Based at the Ashburton Showgrounds, the Mid Canterbury Rugby Union currently has six Ashburton-based clubs plus Methven, Mt Somers and Rakaia.

The representative team’s colours are green and yellow. Mid Canterbury currently competes in the Heartland Championship, a competition for New Zealand’s amateur and semi-professional provincial union. Along with South Canterbury, Buller, Tasman, West Coast and Canterbury, it is part of the highly successful Crusaders Super Rugby franchise.

Shield rugby in Mid Canterbury

Mid Canterbury has never held the Ranfurly Shield, for so long the symbol of provincial rugby supremacy. In 12 shield challenges it has come up against its neighbour Canterbury on seven occasions. Only once has Mid Canterbury ventured to the North Island in search of shield glory, going down 16–0 to Taranaki in 1958. When Auckland took the shield on the road in 1989, it defeated Mid Canterbury 66–0 in Ashburton. The union came closest to success as Ashburton County, losing 20–16 to Southland in 1938. Southland’s Guy Graham scored a hotly disputed try in the last minute. The powerful southerners must have taken their opponents too lightly. When the two sides met again in what turned out to be the last challenge before the outbreak of the Second World War, Southland ran away with the match 50–0.

Another shield competition is hotly fought in this part of the country – the Hanan Shield. Presented in 1946 by A.E.S. Hanan, the Mayor of Timaru, the Hanan Shield is contested by challenge between South Canterbury, Mid Canterbury and North Otago. Mid Canterbury ranks second to South Canterbury in the number of Hanan Shield victories.

Highlights in Mid Canterbury rugby

Mid Canterbury has enjoyed  success in the lower divisions of New Zealand’s provincial championships. When the NPC was created in 1976, Mid Canterbury was placed in the Second Division South. They won this competition in 1980 but lost to Second Division North champions Waikato for the right to play off for promotion to the top flight. A second championship was secured in 1983. This time Mid Canterbury reached the promotion–relegation playoff, losing to Hawke’s Bay. Mid Canterbury secured third division titles in 1994 and 1998. Since the restructuring of the NPC in 2006 Mid Canterbury have regularly appeared in finals in the Heartland Championship, losing in semi-finals of the Meads Cup in 2006 and 2007 and finals in 2008 and 2009. Winning the Meads Cup in 2013 and 2014, and the Lochore Cup in 2017.

One of the all-time greats of New Zealand rugby, Wilson Whineray, played a season for Mid Canterbury in 1954 while working in the area as an agricultural field cadet. Whineray made his All Black debut in 1957 and captained the side in the first half of the 1960s. Only three players have made it into the All Blacks while playing their club rugby in Mid Canterbury.

In 1960, Rakaia wing three-quarter Denis Cameron was a surprise selection for the tour of South Africa. A solid player, he had come to the attention of the selectors with a strong performance for a Hanan Shield XV against the British Lions in 1959. That year’s Rugby Almanac named Cameron as one of its five promising players. He failed to make the test side, playing eight games for the mid-week team – the ‘dirt-trackers’.

Mid Canterbury’s second All Black was their burly hooker and captain, Grant Perry, who also played for the Rakaia club. He received a last-minute call-up for the 1980 All Black tour of Fiji as cover for the injured incumbent rakes, Hika Reid and Andy Dalton. He played his only game for the men in black against Nadroga. Perry continued to give great service to rugby in the region, captaining Mid Canterbury against the touring British Lions in 1983 in a rare international at the Ashburton Showgrounds. In the late 1980s and early 1990s Perry was Mid Canterbury’s selector-coach. Grant's son Tim, Ashburton born, also had several appearances for the Union in 2010 before moving into the Tasman and Crusaders teams. Strong performances for the Crusaders ultimately saw him selected in the All Blacks in 2017 and making his test debut in 2018.

A.H.A. Smith, a stalwart of Mid Canterbury rugby for more than a decade from 1955, is the union’s record points scorer with 598. At more than 2 m tall, Jock Ross was one of the tallest All Black forwards of all time. Playing in the era before lifting in the lineouts, he used his impressive frame to win a lot of ball. Ross played a record 158 matches for Mid Canterbury between 1970 and 1987. He also represented the Hanan Shield XV in 1977 against New Zealand Universities and the British Lions in Timaru. Higher honours came in 1981 with a call-up for the end-of-year tour of France. While the Auckland duo of Andy Haden and Gary Whetton were first choice for the tests Ross, won praise for his line-out prowess in the five matches he played. In the 1990s his wife Christine also played five times for the Black Ferns, and their son Isaac made his All Black debut in 2009.