RUGBY IN WORLD WAR II – HOME AND ABROAD
BY ALLYN FREEMAN
The year 1939 in America will be remembered as the high-water mark of the rugby decade of the 1930s as ten different fifteens competed in the Eastern Rugby Union (ERU), the largest number in its history. Importantly, six universities (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Cornell, Long Island. and Hofstra), and four men’s clubs (NYRFC, Queens, Pilgrims, and St. Andrews) offered membership.
Rugby kept going for the ERU in 1940 and 1941, when the United States remained a neutral country uninvolved in the European fighting. There were fewer matches than before but enough to create an almost full schedule. Then, on December 7 of 1941 occurred “A day that will live in infamy” when Pearl Harbor was attacked and the USA entered World War II.
In 1942, the NYRFC played six of a seven match season as eligible club members volunteered for military service leaving enough men behind to make up a side. Teams playing in that year were NYRFC, Cornell, Boston RFC, Princeton, Yale, Harvard, Long Island, and Queens. Disbanded listed the St. Andrews Club of northern New Jersey, and the Pilgrims of Manhattan.
In this war period, the New York RFC played occasionally with eleven or thirteen men. In matches against visiting ships of the Royal Navy and one game against the RAAF, the home side loaned players to these undermanned British teams. Correspondence from the Rugby Union of Northern California in 1942 to the NYRFC about a possible match, contained a note cautioning, “We, of course, do not play substitutes and are bound by the Rules of the RFU.” The game never took place.
In The U.K.
The U.K. entered into combat in World War II as early as 1939. The last full rugby season ended in 1940. The Four Nations (England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales) tournament halted play from 1939 to 1946. Oxford and Cambridge did not contest the official Varsity Match from 1939 to 1945.
Many charitable fundraiser games were played far outside of London and its Luftwaffe targets. An example was the match between a Rev. Peter Brook XV and an Empire XV at Clifton College, Bristol, where 3,000 spectators paid a shilling admission. The gate proceeds went to the Red Cross. In Wales, the Swansea and West Wales Rugby War Charities staged several events, showcasing many internationals players.
A novel rugby event in World War II saw the RFU easing the constraints of amateur only Rugby Football Union teams playing against professionals from the competitive Rugby League. In 1943, a military-sponsored match was played between a Northern Command Rugby League XV and a Northern Command Rugby Union XV, the contest won by the League 18-11. A similar army Rugby League side was victorious the next year in a second, and final, wartime contest between the two unions. Both games were played under RFU rules.
The Rugby Scandal in France
France and the tragic consequences of its World War II German collaboration remain a sore record in the nation’s history. One of the least known shared events with the occupiers was promulgated by the French Rugby Union against the French Rugby League, which resulted in the disbanding of League during the war.
In 1931, France was kicked out of the Five Nations rugby tournament because of accusations of professionalism among its players. The result witnessed these union ruggers switching affiliation to the up-and-coming pro French Rugby League that expanded to 222 clubs in that decade. In 1939, France beat England and Wales for the European Rugby League title.
After France capitulated to the Germans in June of 1940, the country was divided into two disparate areas. The southern part of the country was known as Vichy France where its government was controlled by the Nazis. This was also the same geographic area of the nation’s rugby heartland, numbering significantly, the highest total of Union clubs.
The French Union convinced the Germans that its rival Rugby League favored the Allies. Only the French Union with its motto “Purity in Sport” shared similar amateur athletic ideals. The Nazis prohibited League play, closed the stadiums and dismissed the players. The final blow was to seize the League’s monies (Two million French francs worth today, $846,000) and to transfer the funds to the French Rugby Union.
Even after the war, the powerful French Rugby Union (later, to become a Federation), would not allow League to use the word “rugby” in its name. League became known as the “Jeu Á Treize” (i.e.; Game of Thirteen) until 1991 when it was allowed, finally, to call itself “Rugby Á Treize or Rugby Á XIII.”
The wartime appropriated monies were never returned to the French Rugby League.
John Mallet (Member of the NYRFC) was a well-known British referee in New York City during the 1960s and the 1970s. For Americans new to rugby, and accustomed to argue match calls with basketball referees and baseball umpires, he served as the textbook example of the take charge, no nonsense, no talking back to the rugby referee.
Mallet boasted he had been “capped” for England during World War II. As everyone knew, no international rugby test matches were played from 1939 to 1946. He explained he was incarcerated in a Japanese POW camp. There, he convinced the Japanese to allow a rugby match between British forces against other Commonwealth countries (Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa). He captained an England fifteen in the match and claimed an unofficial “cap” for the effort.