USA Rugby In Decline (1880 to 1895)

by Allyn Freeman

A magazine cartoon depicts two, tiny mammals peering out of foliage in the immediate aftermath of the meteor slamming into the Yucatan (Mexico) Peninsula sixty-six million years ago that eradicated the dinosaurs. One animal queries, “Hey, where did all the big guys go?”

A historical case of here today, gone tomorrow.

Gridiron football did not displace rugby overnight from a single catastrophic event but gradually over a fifteen-year period. During that time, these similar contact sports (oval ball, kicking, running with the ball, and tackling) continued side by side for a few years under the title of “rugby”, and then gradually, to just “football.”

Basically, rule modifications advocated by Yale’s Walter Camp predominated to change forever how the two football games were played, The significant Rules Committee revisions over the following years are highlighted as follows:

  • Cutback in players from 15 to 11;
  • Reduction in the field size from 140 x 70 yards to 110 x 53 1/3 yards;
  • New: A defined scrimmage (ball possession of three downs to move five-yards) replacing the free-flowing scrums; and,
  • Revised scoring with awarded points for touchdowns:

Safety = 2 points

Touchdown = 2 points

Goal (Conversion after touchdown) = 4 points

Field Goal = 5 points

A review of Yale’s rugby football teams in 1882 and 1883 illustrates the marked effect of the newly created scoring totals:

1882: 7-0 – (Old scoring listing goals only)

Wesleyan:  9-0

Rutgers:     9-0

Rutgers:     5-0

MIT:          8-0

Amherst:    8-0

Columbia:11-0

Harvard:    1-0

Princeton:  2-1

Total        53-1

1883: 9-0 – (New scoring)

Wesleyan:  58-0

Wesleyan:  90-0

Stevens:     59-0

Rutgers:     92-0

Bklyn.Ply   49-0

Columbia.  93-0

Michigan.   64-0

Princeton.     6-0

Harvard:     23-2

Total.        534-2

In net, under the new rules, Yale rugby increased its scoring totals by an amazing 501 points with but two points scored against. And in 1883, only its main rival, Princeton, played competitive football against the Elis. Princeton also experienced a significant change in scoring, going from 44 points tallied in 1882 to 270 in 1883.

In the past, the prior low scoring results generated no negative newspaper comments when matches were decided solely by the one-point goals. (Remember, according to the RU in England, only goals determined a match result.) However, with the revised scoring now registering the vast difference in points, sports journalists had no choice but to make negative statements. In that 1883 Yale-Rutgers game, one scribe penned “…a 92-0 Yale rout from a one sided, fifteen goal total.”

Inside the game – Yale v Princeton 1883

The rugby football rivalries of Yale-Princeton, Yale-Harvard, and Harvard-Princeton generated publicity, first, from sports journalists, and, after, from the newspaper reading public. The contests were played in New York City, mainly, at the first Polo Grounds stadium on West 110th Street.

These annual matches often determined the “best” rugby football team in the nation when undefeated Yale and Princeton sides met. The contests received full coverage from New York’s newspapers. Here are some excerpts from that Yale-Princeton 1883 game that appeared in “The Sun.” (New York City)

  • “A line of four-in-hand coaches stood on the grounds. The coaches were draped with the blue of Yale and the orange and black of Princeton.”
  • “The lithe men of Princeton looked like a swarm of hornets. They wore uniforms of white Knickerbocker pants and stockings, shirts, and caps of striped black and orange.”
  • “The burley Yale men looked like longshoremen in drab Knickerbockers, dirty white jackets, blue stockings and blue caps.”
  • “Yale had the kick-off and, in a moment, the two sides were performing wonderful acrobatic feats.”
  • “The men came to blows a couple of times and the spectators stopped cheering in order to hiss.”

Final note

The term “rugby” would be used until the colleges’ playing fields had to be lined in five-yard squares to demark first downs. To some, the pitch resembled the bottom of an iron. and the name “gridiron” achieved universal usage in the press. It was at this juncture, that the sport of rugby in America became as extinct as the dinosaur.

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