New England and the Birth of Rugby in America

by Allyn Freeman

Rugby union football, a sport created at England ‘s Rugby School, would make its debut in the Unites States in May 1874 when a team from Canada’s McGill University (Montreal) traveled to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to play Harvard.

To understand this groundbreaking event, it is important to recount the history of “football” in America prior to that visit, especially, as played  by colleges in New England and the Mid-Atlantic states.

Oneida Football Club – Boston

In 1862, a football game without formal rules was played on the Boston Commons among the city’s elite private high schools like Boston Latin and Dixwell. To introduce coherence to the disarrayed matches, a group of schoolboys formed the Oneida Football Club becoming the nation’s first organized football organization. The Oneida F.C. lasted only until 1865 but left a local legacy of its style of play (Round ball, and some running and tackling).

It became known familiarly as the “Boston game” and was then played almost exclusively by Harvard students. (Today, a plaque exists on the Commons to commemorate the Oneida Club.)

Rutgers vs. Princeton, 1869

In November 1869, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, challenged Princeton (then, known as the College of New Jersey) to a game of football. The game was played under the English Football Association Rules, the precursor of later international soccer football guidelines. Each team fielded 25 players, and Rutgers wore scarlet turbans in what must represent the first attempt at team uniforms.

Historically, this contest is often referenced erroneously as the first collegiate “football’ match but this a misleading term since it connotes American gridiron football that did not exist until the mid-1880s.

Afterward in 1873, Columbia, Yale, and Princeton formed the Intercollegiate Football Association in New York City among five Mid-Atlantic universities to formulate the rules for the kicking for goal sport. Harvard declined to join the organization since it played a running/tackling version of football.

McGill Comes to Cambridge, 1874

Isolated in New England, and a far distance from Yale, Columbia, and Princeton, Harvard searched for opponents to play its “Boson game.”. It learned that McGill played rugby and challenged the Canadians to a two-game match. One game would be the Boston rules with 11 men on a side, and, the other contest, the rugby import from England. By this date, Rugby was 31 years old with a set of defined rules codified in 1871 by 25 English clubs. (Of historic interest, 1871 also witnessed the first international rugby match when England traveled to play Scotland in Edinburgh.)

Harvard defeated McGill 3-0 in the “Boston game.” The next day, they played rugby that resulted in a 0-0 tie. Importantly, rugby rules introduced the concept of a “try,” which would evolve into the American football “touchdown.”

Harvard traveled to McGill in October 1874, winning the rugby game by three tries. This  McGill vs. Harvard rugby rivalry continues via an annual match called the Peter Covo Memorial Cup. The Canadians lead this series 24-14.

1874 – Year of Rugby Introduction

Harvard’s preference for the “Boston game” disdained its decision to join the other colleges in the Intercollegiate Football Union. The sole outlier among eastern football playing schools, the Crimson opted for the running and tackling options of its local sport. And serendipitously, it would discover in rugby presented by McGill, a mature, demarcated football game with decades of defined rules.

Harvard realized it needed to introduce rugby football to other American colleges. That decision would occur a year later in 1875 when Harvard would travel to New Haven to play Yale.

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