By Allyn Freeman

In the years 1906 to 1917, the West Coast rugby college experiment – the substitutions of the sport for gridiron – failed to generate a national movement outside California and Nevada. With the outbreak of war in Europe, when colleges transformed into military training camps, it ceased to exist except for a few clubs in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

By 1919, rugby had become nothing but a memory to the many California ruggers from Stanford, California, Santa Clara, and St. Mary’s who earlier played the sport in college. Most who returned to school after the Great War to finish a degree, switched easily to gridiron.    

But one person, W. Harry Maloney, spotted an unusual opportunity to reawaken American rugby. As president of the California Rugby Union (CRU), he became aware that the sport would return to the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium. He petitioned the United States Olympic Committee to suggest the USA send a rugby team to the international event.

As audacious as this request seemed to the Committee, it was made more so by the striking fact that in 1920 in America, rugby was hardly ever played. Few people, if any, in the nation were aware that an impromptu USA Military XV played in a 1919 Inter-Allied European Cup tournament, losing 8-3 in the finals to France.

Rugby in the Olympics: 1900 and 1908

It was Baron Pierre de Coubertin of France who conceived of the idea to stage a modern version of the Olympics in Athens in 1896. He is also credited with being the “Father” of French Rugby, and, when the Games came next to Paris in 1900, he added the sport to the mix.

Three teams competed in 1900; France, a German fifteen from the Frankfurt FC, and, finally, the Mosley Wanderers, a squad from the English Midlands. France defeated Frankfurt 27-17, and Mosley 27-8 to take the gold.

There was no rugby offered in the 1904 Olympics in St Louis, a time when the sport did not exist in the USA.

Rugby returned to the Olympics in 1908 when the Games came to London. Again, three fifteens competed; France, England, represented by county champions Cornwall RFC, and, Australia, comprised of touring Wallabies. Australia defeated Cornwall 32-3 for the gold.

No rugby was scheduled in the 1912 Stockholm Games since the host country, Sweden, did not play the sport.

Road to Antwerp – Finding and Funding a Team   

The US Olympic Committee considered Maloney’s request and decided on an unusual course of action:

“…the sanction will be given for a team to represent the US, (but)

the financial aid must come from the State of California itself,

and by the men from whom the team will be chosen.”

In short, the CRU would have the formidable responsibility for raising funds to equip, to train, and to cover all team travel costs to Belgium. 

Although rugby in California by 1920 had all but disappeared, the many men who played it, starting in 1906, possessed warmhearted memories of their days on the pitch. Subsidizing an American fifteen to compete in the prestigious Olympic Games represented a serendipitous opportunity to reinforce the two college presidents’ decision of long ago to take up the sport.

The CRU commenced the two-fold initiative of selecting team players, and, as important, raising monies for the endeavor. Eventually, the USA Olympic rugby team, with every athlete coming from California, listed 22-players:

Stanford – 11, California – 3, Santa Clara – 5, and San Francisco Clubs – 3

Charles Tilden, a Cal graduate, was chosen captain.

Danny Carroll

The CRU appointment of former Aussie Danny Carroll as player and coach of the American squad proved an astute decision. His rugby bona fides numbered many attributes; a first fifteen, club and national team standout at fly half, a member of the Wallaby XV that won a gold medal at the 1908 London Olympics, a tour player when the Waratahs visited California, and, as a Stanford student, playing for the All-American team against the All-Blacks in 1913.

Carroll became a US Citizen in 1920, having served with distinction in the US Army during the War. His knowledge of the game, and his life-long player experience, provided a first-hand background of rugby contested at the international level. He became the team’s go to person for rules explanations. 

Final Note 

The California Bay Area raised the $8,000 required to fund a USA rugby team to sail to Europe to compete in the 1920 Olympics. The September opponent for the Games’ sole rugby match would be France, the winner of that 1919 European military tournament.

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