When Rugby Lost Out To Football
There was a time when rugby might have become America’s contact sport and Monday morning office chats might have mused around tries, scrums and drop-kicks instead of touchdowns, quarterbacks and field goals.
Like two rival siblings, rugby and American football grew up together and later followed their own separate paths. One gained a widespread following and prospered, while the other fell under its shadow and languished.
With 32 franchises competing in the NFL today, the league is a sporting behemoth in American culture. Professional teams draft young players from NCAA programs that serve as incubators and release them on the gridiron in front of millions of loyal fans.
In contrast, professional rugby in the U.S. never lasted more than a year. PRO Rugby was introduced in 2016 with 5 teams but then folded 9 months later. In college, the NCAA doesn’t even oversee men’s rugby, leaving the un-padded and un-helmeted recreation to fall under the auspices of USA Rugby.
But go back to the early 20th century and the scene was different. Rugby and football were vying for supremacy at American colleges and potentially, for the hearts and minds of the sporting heartland.
Adopted in the 1870’s, rugby made its way in America through the collegiate system. The Ivy Leagues promoted it on the east coast, while out west British expats popularized the game in California.
The rough and tumble sport started showing its American features after Yale graduate Walter Camp sought to bring order to what he regarded as mob chaos in the game.
Camp dropped the number of players on a side from 15 to 11, introduced the line of scrimmage and the center snap-back, and implemented a system of downs for moving the ball.
The new rules departed from the rugby conventions of the day and while they caught on over time, the game remained incurably violent. Crippling injuries and even deaths were not uncommon.
Football came to a head in 1905 when 19 players died from injuries sustained on the field. It was during this period and the next decade when rugby challenged football as the preferred college sport.
The “football crisis” prompted President Teddy Roosevelt to force colleges to adopt safer guidelines. Some newly-created rules, including the legalization of the forward pass intended to open up the game, weren’t popular.
While the game’s future was being debated on the east coast, Stanford and UC-Berkeley abandoned football altogether in favor of rugby. Their annual “Big Game” meet-up, contested since 1892, was played under rugby rules from 1906-1914. Other colleges and high schools picked up the rugby code as well.
But rugby’s momentum was stopped cold following the visit of New Zealand’s All-Blacks team in 1913. Playing at least a dozen exhibition matches against various California colleges, the kiwis crushed the Americans at every opportunity. The All-Blacks even thrashed the best of an All-American squad 51-3. The effect on the sport and its national support was profound.
The San Francisco Post wrote “…we have not yet learned how to play rugby. It is still a foreign game”. Spalding’s Guide reported “…we have not mastered the rudiments of rugby”.
Sports programs returned to football and rugby began its slow march towards national irrelevance. The game’s last hurrah for the Americans was at the 1920 and 1924 Olympics where the U.S. rugby team won gold.
Some argue that rugby was doomed from the start, but it remains one of the great might-have-beens in American sports history.
BASEBALL April 2, 2010 Former MLB pitcher Mike Cuellar dies at the age of 72. A 2x World Series champion and 4x All-Star, Cuellar started off with the Cincinnati Reds in 1959 and played for 5 teams, spending the most years with the Baltimore Orioles. He won the AL Cy Young award in his first season with the dynastic Orioles and was their starting pitcher at the 1969 World Series against the NY Mets. Cuellar closed his career with an ERA of 3.14 and 1,632 strikeouts.
BASKETBALL April 2, 2000 At the 19th Women’s NCAA Basketball Championship, the Connecticut Huskies defeat the Tennessee Volunteers 71-52. Led by their famed coach Geno Auriemma, the Huskies claimed their second national title. They would win another 9 championships and become the nation’s most successful women’s basketball program to date. The Connecticut ladies dispatched Penn State at the Semi-finals before taking on Tennessee for the crown.
GOLF April 8, 1990 Nick Faldo wins the 54th annual Masters Tournament held in Augusta, Georgia. Shooting a 278 (-10) and tying Raymond Floyd in the final round after the latter bogeyed on the 16th hole, Faldo emerged victorious in the playoff showdown. It was his second consecutive win at the Masters and third of what would be six career majors. Born in Herdforshire, England, Faldo turned pro in 1976 and has won more majors than any other modern European golfer.
OLYMPICS April 12, 1980 The U.S. Olympic committee announces their boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. A total of 66 countries chose not to attend the games due to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. Nevertheless, 80 other nations did agree to send their athletes to the first Olympics that were held in a communist country. Four years later, the Russians and their East European allies would follow-up with a boycott of the Los Angeles games.