NEW ENGLAND’S GIFT TO AMERICA: 150 YEARS OF RUGBY TRADITION AND TRIUMPH

by | Jun 1, 2024 | Blog, Featured News, News | 0 comments

Image featuring: PHOTO CONTEST WINNER: Keene State Rugby Football Club; Keene, New Hampshire

NEW ENGLAND’S GIFT TO AMERICA: 150 YEARS OF RUGBY TRADITION AND TRIUMPH

150 years ago in May of 1874, the first ever rugby game was played on American soil at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The story of rugby in the United States tells a tale of grassroots formation, growing in our backyard of New England. Over the years the pillars of American rugby created a strong community with people from all walks of life. Across the country; schools, clubs, and professional teams have sprouted all because of the curiosity of a few individuals over a hundred years ago.

Image featuring: Harvard versus McGill at Jarvis Field in Cambridge, MA on May 15, 1874

It was a Thursday afternoon in mid-May, the 14th to be exact. Hundreds of Harvard students and Cambridge residents meandered to Jarvis Field, central to the historic Harvard University campus. It was a matchday that had been anticipated for months, the first meeting between Harvard Crimson and the McGill Redmen in the quickly growing game of football. 

The contest had been planned between the respective clubs months in advance. The Redmen from McGill University were waiting for the ground to defrost after a brutal winter and safe traveling conditions from Montréal to Cambridge. After discussions between both sides, the clubs decided that they would play two games; one with “Boston rules”, an 11-a-side game with a round ball, and the other with McGill’s rugby union rules, 15-a-side with an oval-shaped ball made of a bladder covered by leather. 

As Harvard was the host, they decided the first of the two matches would be “the Boston game.” This form of football was created in Boston by the Oneida Football Club. After hearing about rugby and association football (soccer) from England, students at boarding schools and universities across the Northeast would try to recreate the fabled game from their cousins across the Atlantic. 

Image featuring: A historic game of rugby being played at Dartmouth College, date unknown. 

At Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, students put together matches under the title of “Old Division football.” The games were very disorganized and seemed to vary in rules from match to match. There were no goalposts and no time limit on gameplay. A player that was found offsides was penalized for “lurking.” Most of the games would be between natural divisions in the student body, such as sophomore versus freshman, New Hampshire versus The World, and Odd number graduating class versus Even number graduating class.

Image featuring: Gerrit “Gat” Smith Miller

Amid the American Civil War, a young man named Gerrit “Gat” Smith Miller was sick and tired of the disorganization of the American versions of football. Gat was raised in Peterboro, New York, and went off to boarding school at Noble and Greenough in Boston (the school moved to Dedham, Mass. in the 1920s). He came from a family of businessmen and cattle farmers and was the grandson of famous abolitionist Gerrit Smith. His grandfather was a friend of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman and even helped fund fellow abolitionist John Brown’s Harper’s Ferry raid that preluded the Civil War. Gat grew up helping escaped enslaved Africans on his family’s property along the Underground Railroad

After experiencing the haphazard frenzy that his peers were referring to as “football” back at school, Gat was inspired to assemble a club and orderly rules that the team could follow in their matches. A friend had suggested that he name the club after Oneida Lake, not far from Gat’s home in New York. Upon his high school graduation, Gat founded Oneida Football Club. The team grew in size and popularity and eventually hosted matches at Boston Common.

Image featuring: 1925 Monument at Boston Common commemorating Oneida FC (1980)

Oneida FC played against local high schoolers from Roxbury and Dorchester who attended Boston Latin and Boston English. Because the opposition was smaller in stature, being school boys, Oneida would allow them to play with 16 men, sometimes even giving them some of their players from the club. In 1863, the boys from Latin and English beat the men from Oneida FC. The round ball used in the game (pictured) was preserved by Historic New England archives and can be visited at the old Harrison Gray Otis House on Cambridge Street in Boston’s West End. 

Image featuring: The ball used by Oneida FC when students from English High and Boston Latin defeated them

It was men from Oneida FC who founded the Harvard Crimson football team. They kept the same “Boston rules” they had been playing with at The Common. 

Once the Canadians arrived at Jarvis Field, it was realized that McGill had four fewer men than the Harvard side. This was no problem, as both teams compromised and decided to play with fewer players. The first match would be played under Boston rules as planned, which was far more like soccer than the “carrying” game that the students from Montréal were used to playing. The Redmen had played rugby with British soldiers as early as 1862. They were obsessed with rugby football and played their matches at home using the laws of the rugby game.

Image featuring: Harvard’s Jarvis Field in Cambridge, MA

Harvard dominated the first game and went on to win 3-0 after the match was abandoned only 22 minutes later. That was all the matchplay on the first game of the two-day affair. The next day, the Redmen and the Crimson returned to Jarvis Field to play under the Canadian’s favorite rugby union rules.

Once the whistle blew and kick-off commenced, sport in America would never be the same. The impact of rugby and then American football would leave a lasting impact on this country that will exist centuries into the future. Although the first rugby match on American soil ended scoreless, the men from Harvard were head over heels in love with the style of play that the Canadians introduced to them. They were so hyped about rugby after the game that they even showed their arch-rivals from Yale University how to play with the rugby laws.  Harvard also shared the beautiful game of rugby with their neighbors at Tufts University and played a rugby game against them in 1875.

Growth of the Game

Over the next decade, rugby union spread like wildfire across the United States. Emblazoned by the foreign-born game, former collegiate players and expatriates formed clubs from New England to the San Francisco Bay. Communicating the precise rugby union laws was difficult with the technology available at the time, and some clubs began to play an Americanized version of rugby football. This came to be known as American football, however, the new form of the game was perceived as violent, mainly because of confusion based on the rules. President Theodore Roosevelt even said that American football needed to be cleaned up. With this perception across the nation, rugby had its first renaissance in the United States.

In the 1910s, collegiate American football teams like the University of Pennsylvania played by rugby rules. On the West Coast, American football teams were replaced by rugby at St. Mary’s, Nevada, Santa Clara, USC, Cal-Berkeley, and Stanford. With the rise of the collegiate game, the United States was first recognized internationally as a developing rugby nation.

Gat Smith Miller was awarded a plaque from The Rugby School in England where the game was created by William Webb Ellis. The plaque is still hung in the Noble and Greenough School today in commemoration of Miller’s passion and work in spreading rugby.

Image Featuring: United States Rugby, 1920 Olympics

The icing on the cake at the top of early American success in rugby was the 1920 Olympic Games. Rugby was one of the most popular events at the games and the United States wanted to declare themselves on the world stage for the first time. The American team, mostly comprised of college students from Cal-Berkeley, Stanford, and Santa Clara, went on to beat France 8-0 to win the Gold Medal. Four years later in 1924, the Americans beat the French again in the Gold Medal match. This was the last time rugby was played in the Olympics until Rugby Sevens was introduced again in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil at the 2016 Olympic Games.

2024 not only marks the 150th year of American Rugby, but the 100th anniversary of US Rugby’s gold medal victory at the 1924 Olympic Games.

Image Featuring: The 1924 Gold Medal Winning United States Rugby, USA Olympics.

With World War II following a little over a decade after the 1924 Gold Medal win, rugby struggled to survive in these trying times. It wasn’t until the late 1950s when former college players revived clubs across the country. In 1958, former Heisman winner Pete Dawkins played for Oxford University against Cambridge while continuing his education at the prestigious English school. The first Rugby Sevens tournament was played in New York the following year.

In the 1960s, Boston RFC, Providence RFC, Portland RFC, and Hartford Wanderers RFC were founded, with Charles River RFC, Old Gold RFC, Mystic River RC, and Burlington RFC following in the 70s. 

USA Rugby was created in 1975 as the country’s first governing body of rugby. The same year New England Rugby Football Union (NERFU) was founded and began recognizing clubs across the region. Early the next year, the Eagles (US National Rugby Team) fielded their first XV versus Australia in Anaheim, California. The Wallabies (Australian National Rugby Team) won 24-12. Around the same time, women’s college rugby teams began to sprout at campuses around the country. The birth of the women’s game can be traced back to three collegiate teams; the Colorado State Hookers of Fort Collins, University of Colorado, Boulder, and the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. 

Image Featuring: Oregon Sports Union (ORSU) player powers through a defender

The women of America created a rugby powerhouse over the next 20 years. In 1987, the United States Women’s National Rugby Team was established. Four years later, the Women’s Eagles were invited to the first Women’s Rugby World Cup in 1991. Hosted in Cardiff, Wales, the Eagles shut out the Netherlands and the Soviet Union in the Pool Stages and moved on to the semi-final against the New Zealand Black Ferns, whom they also sent home scoreless. 

Historic rivals, England and the United States were set to face each other in the World Cup final. At halftime, England were up 6-3 following a penalty try. Boston’s-own coach of Beantown RFC, Kevin O’Brien, and South African Chris Leach inspired the Eagles to score 16 unanswered points in the second half with tries from flanker Claire Godwin and scrumhalf Patty Connell. At flyhalf, Chris Harju converted two conversions and a penalty kick. And just like that, the Women’s Eagles brought home the first-ever Women’s Rugby World Cup trophy to the United States.

Back in New England, new clubs were popping up all over the region. In 1992, the Boston Irish Wolfhounds were in their first season in NERFU DII after traveling as a touring side in the late 80s. Up in Manchester, New Hampshire, Amoskeag RFC competed in NERFU DI alongside top Massachusetts sides; Boston and Mystic River. And to the south, Newport RFC were a decade into their time in NERFU DII, playing against the Wolfhounds and Rhode Island derby rivals, Providence RFC. 

Image Featuring: Amoskeag RFC in Newport, Rhode Island (1990)

In 1997, the USA Rugby Super League was created as the highest-level rugby competition in the nation. Clubs mainly from the Western states were included, with Boston RFC and Philadelphia Whitemarsh joining the second season. 10 years later, the Boston Irish Wolfhounds joined the Super League after being the first US club ever to send two teams (first XV and third XV) to the National Championship.

Around the same time, USA Sevens had finally been accepted to participate in the IRB Sevens World Series after years of lobbying. Los Angeles was originally the host of the USA Sevens tournament, however, the venue moved to San Diego and then Las Vegas where it is still held today. New England Free Jacks founder and CEO Alex Magleby captained the Eagles in the Rugby World Cup Sevens in 2005. Magleby went on to coach the Eagles Sevens in 2012 and introduced USA Rugby legends such as Nate Augspurger, Mike Te’o, and Carlin Isles to the roster.

Image Featuring: Free Jacks founder and CEO Alex Magleby playing for USA versus Fiji

In the age of viral videos, players like Carlin Isles and Todd Clever boosted rugby’s media presence in the United States. Rookie Rugby, a youth rugby initiative by USA Rugby introduced over 100,000 American children to rugby in the 2010s. In 2014, the Eagles faced the New Zealand All Blacks in a sold-out Soldier Field in Chicago, setting a USA Rugby attendance record. The next year, the Eagles Sevens won their first-ever tournament at the London Sevens.

Image Featuring: Free Jacks versus Connacht Rugby in the 2019 Cara Cup

With rugby increasingly in the spotlight, Major League Rugby was founded in 2018. On September 21, 2018, Major League Rugby announced that New England would be one of the expansion teams joining the league for the 2020 season. That same day, the club was announced as the New England Free Jacks.

The first Free Jacks match took place on October 20, 2018, against the Ontario Arrows at Wanderers Grounds in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Early rosters from these matches included a mixture of veteran professional players and top local talent from clubs such as the Boston Irish Wolfhounds and Mystic River, some of whom can still be found in the Free Jacks Roster today. 

Image Featuring: The 2023 Free Jacks MLR Championship Team Celebrating in Chicago after beating San Diego in the MLR Championship Final. 

In 2023, 5 years after being announced the Free Jacks won thier First MLR title and the rest is history. The United States will host the 2031 Rugby World Cup and the 2033 Women’s Rugby World Cup. Around that time, Major League Rugby will have finished its 13th season.

The great part about the rugby community is that people usually tend to stick around. Rugby has the power to bring people together like no other sport, and people will always remember how the community brought them in with open arms. The future of rugby in the United States lies on the next generation of players, coaches, officials, business people, and supporters. In the heart of every player and fan, the spirit of rugby will forever burn bright, lighting the way for those who follow like in the Free Jacks’ lantern motif. Let us embrace this journey, for it is not just a game, but a way of life that will echo through time.

For more opportunities to engage with the Free Jacks community, stay updated on future Free Jacks matches, festivals, and announcements through the Free Jacks’ news page: www.freejacks.com/news

Written By:

Colin Elliott

Staff Writer, Intern, @ New England Free Jacks

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