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Rugby in USA

Carl Mullen signs rugby ball for small boy


Well before American football, Association football or Rugby football were established by means of their codification, 'Football' was being played in all parts of the world. In fact American Indians were observed playing a type of football in the 17th century.

At this point in its development, mainstream football was either a type of folk, mob or shrove tide football, or a game between two equally sized teams to a set of locally agreed rules. So the term 'football' was a very loose term up to an including the early 19th century time since many different variations were played. Football was indeed very diverse.

Examples of early locally derived games in the U.S.:

  • Princeton played a game called 'ballown; as early as 1820.
  • Harvard had a mass ball game called 'Bloody Monday' which began in 1827.
  • Dartmouth played a game called 'Old division football'.

The first written rules of Rugby (for they were not laws at that point) were created at Rugby School in 1845 although by then old boys had transported the game far and wide so versions of the Rugby school game were being played in the U.S. from the early 1840s e.g. at Princeton, Harvard and Yale.

Early Games

When examining accounts of early football games it is difficult to conclusively determine whether the game being played was according Rugby rules or not.

It is commonly believed that the first recorded rugby match in the United States occurred on May 14, 1874 between Harvard University and McGill University, however, although this is at present the earliest documented college game in the U.S. it is unlikely to be the earliest game, since evidence exists of other earlier games played between clubs using Rugby School rules as the base.

The following example was provided by Melvin Smith:

Early USA club Game
Philadelphia Inquirer - November 18, 1869. Germantown Cricket Club Vs. Young American Cricket Club 1

Since the early Rugby rules did not lay out the specifics of a general playing enclosure (apart from the local attributes of Rugby School fields) it is interesting to see how the clubs mentioned here added the physical characteristics of their local environment to the rules for the game. While the rules are not completely aligned to Rugby rules the article clearly states the games rulesl “are adopted chiefly from those of Rugby school”.

Philadelphia Inquirer - November 20, 1869. Germantown Cricket Club Vs. Young American Cricket Club 1

Read more about early US soccer, football, rugby research here

Harvard-McGill: 1874

On May 14, Harvard University hosted Montreal’s McGill University at Cambridge, Mass. In fact it was a series of three games. The first game was played to Harvard's rules using a round ball and Harvard won 3 goals to nil. The next day they played again to McGill's rules and used an oval ball, the game ended a scoreless draw. After this Harvard adopted largely the Rugby rules and the third game of the series was played at McGill Uni. in the fall where Harvard won.

Here is an extract from a very well written article produced by the Professional footballers researchers association

Harvard's funeral for Football Fightum turned out to be premature, to say the least. By 1871, only ten years after the burial, they were playing at Cambridge once more. The Boston Game, developed by the Oneidas, was favored by the Crimson for its class games. This, remember, was a combination of both soccer and rugby. The emphasis seems to have been on kicking, but the ball could be caught and run if the catcher was pursued. That made it just different enough to cut off Harvard from competition with other schools, all of whom played the strict kicking game.

When the invitation came to attend the 1873 meeting [meeting , Harvard had a tough decision to make: should they keep running by themselves or kick with the pack?

They decided to stay home and keep running. Some people have called it the most momentous decision in the history of American football. Some people exaggerate. Football lends itself to hyperbole -- the greatest, the best, the most, etc. Harvard's decision was important. Let it go at that.

The reason it was important is that Harvard began to look high and low for someone to play their precious Boston Game against. No other U.S. school would touch it.

Finally, in the spring of 1874, McGill University of Montreal, Canada, issued a challenge to the Crimson. Captain Harry Grant happily accepted. It turned out Harvard got more than it bargained for. McGill agreed to come to Cambridge for a session of Boston Game if Harvard would then have a go at a game by McGill's rules. McGill played rugby. The two teams met on May 14. Played under Harvard's rules, the game was such a rout they called it off after only 22 minutes with the home team in front 3-0.

"Just wait until tomorrow when we play rugby!" warned the McGill men.

The Harvard team laughed, but when the McGill players were out of earshot they asked each other nervously, "What's a rugby?"

Years later, a member of the Harvard class of 1874 said, "There were many points of difference [in the Boston Game] from the Rugby game. It was eminently a kicking, as distinguished from a running and tackling, game. The rules ... existed only in tradition. We went to work to learn the Rugby game, but I should question if there were three men in college who had ever seen the egg-shaped ball. A drop kick was an unknown and incredible feat, and the intricacies of `off side,' `free kick,' `put out,' and such commonplaces of the game seemed inextricable mysteries to novices like us."

The game played the next day, May 15, was the first rugby game on U.S. soil. Harvard acquitted itself very well and struggled to a scoreless tie. More importantly, they fell head over heels in love with rugby and all thoughts of the once-cherished Boston Game disappeared. Harvard couldn't wait until the next fall. When it came, they raced up to Montreal to play some more rugby. In addition to kicked goals, the Canadian version of the game allowed touchdowns to count in the scoring. Harvard scored three of them to win.

Flushed with success, the Crimson came home and, the next year, challenged Yale to a rugby match. The sons of Eli thought it over and decided it might be fun. The two schools scheduled a game for November 13, at Hamilton Park in New Haven, to be played under what were called the "Concessionary Rules". These had nothing to do with selling beer, hot dogs, or crackerjacks, but were instead a special set of rules agreed to in which each side gave up a little.

Harvard sacrificed counting touchdowns in the scoring. The only thing a TD gained was the right to try for a goal. Yale agreed to play with 15 men instead of the eleven they preferred. They had been won over to the smaller group two years earlier when they played soccer against a traveling team of eleven Englishmen from Eton. Yale found it made for a more open, exciting game. From then on they kept pushing for eleven on a side until everybody was sick to death from hearing about it. For Yale to agree to put four extra men on the field was a major concession and showed real sportsmanship.

In their first rugby game, Yale's nice guys finished last. Harvard ran all over them, and the poor sons of Eli, knowing nothing about tackling, let them. The final stood 4-0 Harvard, with one of the goals coming after a touchdown. Despite the one-sided defeat, Yale was completely captivated by rugby. Forthwith, they decided, they would play it themselves."

Intercollegiate Football Association

In 1876, Yale, Harvard, Princeton, and Columbia formed the Intercollegiate Football Association, a competition based on the traditional rules of rugby union. Around the same time, British rugby players who had formed clubs in the San Francisco bay area introduced rugby to the University of California, Berkeley.

On December 2, 1882, the first Californian representative rugby team to play an outside opponent, took on a group of rugby-playing ex-Britons, who called themselves the Phoenix Rugby Club of San Francisco. California lost to the Phoenix club 7–4.


The first USA international was played on November 16, 1912 at Berkeley against the Australia national rugby union team (the Wallabies). The visitors won the match 12–8.

A year later the U.S. hosted New Zealand at the same venue, but the score was not nearly as close, and the Kiwis ran away with the contest 51–3.

(extract from ESPN article)

Rugby union gained popularity in the U.S. throughout the late Nineteenth Century and by the early 1900s was offering a serious challenge to American Football as the dominant football code on the west coast. Much of the US, including President Teddy Roosevelt - whose personal machismo made him particularly in tune with the local code of football - had engaged in debate about its direction during the 'football crisis' of 1906, prompted by worries over violent play, serious injuries and evidence of sharp practice by college coaches.

The leading colleges of the west coast took their disquiet a step further, with Stanford and the Berkeley-based University of California abandoning football and taking up rugby. From 1906 on their annual 'Big Game', one of the great American sporting rivalries, was contested under rugby rules. Some other colleges, such as Santa Clara University followed, and there was the additional bonus of the established rugby colony across the Canadian border in British Columbia.

In 1912 the Australians visited on tour. The tour culminated in an All America v Australia test match which the hosts dominated for long periods, leading 8-3 midway through the second half and 8-6 within five minutes of the end, before the Australians finally prevailed 12-8.

However, in 1913, the All Blacks visited California on tour. University of California were defeated 38-3 and 33-0. Stanford, which by this stage had a clear edge in the 'Big Game' rivalry, was victimised still further, by 54-0 and 56-0. The last hope of the hosts was the All America v New Zealand Test played at Berkeley on November 15, 1913, however, the score ended 51- 3.

The impact on Californian rugby was profound. The San Francisco Post spoke for the depression induced by the result :"The Californian players are the best we have developed in seven years of intercollegiate rugby - the very best. And the score against them was 51 to 3. The only conclusion is that we have not yet learned how to play rugby. It is still a foreign game."

Spalding's Guide, the main US sporting almanac of the time, reported in 1914 that "The rumblings are not just giving vent to a wounded pride. We have not mastered the rudiments of rugby".

The impact was felt particularly at the University of California. Decent 'Big Game' results - it won every game between 1909 and 1911, with a draw in 1912, were outweighed by a feeling of being cut off from the national mainstream which seeded pressure for a return to American football. Roberta Peck has written that the shattering defeats by the All Blacks "contributed to the already growing disaffection that many students and sports enthusiasts felt for rugby".

In 1915 the University of California returned to football. Stanford hung on for a few more years and generated an extraordinary legacy in the Olympic-winning teams of 1920 (with Carroll as player-coach) and 1924 (coached by 1913 centre Charles Austin), but by 1919 The Big Game was once more an American Football fixture, as it has remained ever since.

1960s and 70s

Rugby began its revival in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, as many colleges started club rugby teams.

USA Rugby, the body that governs rugby in the U.S., was founded in 1975.

On 31 January 1976, the U.S. national team played Australia -- in its first official match since the 1924 Olympics -- before 7,000 fans at Glover Field in Los Angeles.

1980s and beyond

In 1980, USA Rugby formed a college national championship tournament.

In 1987, the U.S. national team participated in the inaugural Rugby World Cup.

The U.S. women's national team was officially formed in 1987.

The Rugby Super League, a nationwide club competition, was played from 1996 to 2012.

From 2003 to 2011, the U.S. national team played in the Churchill Cup, with the U.S. hosting matches from 2006 to 2010.

The U.S. national rugby sevens team has participated each year in the IRB Sevens World Series each year since the tournament's founding in 1999.

Rugby received a significant boost in the U.S. in 2009 when the International Olympic Committee voted to reinstate rugby into the Summer Olympics beginning in 2016.


1. Newspaper articles kindly sourced and provided by Melvin Smith.

2. retrieved Nov 29th, 2013

3. A giant awakes







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