Here’s a trivia question that might score you a few ‘biscuits’ one day…”In the decade before WW1, apart from the UK’s biggest cities and Sydney, what was the only other place in the world where at least one Rugby match each season would draw a crowd well over 20,000?” The answer? Not Brisbane, not Capetown, not Auckland nor Wellington – it was San Francisco, California.
In the decade leading into WW1 ‘Rugby reigned supreme’ as the preferred football code on the Pacific coast.
Rugby games and clubs first emerged in San Francisco in the 1870s, and by the early 1880s the University of California (‘Cal’) at neighbouring Berkeley had adopted Rugby too. The English code though fell out of favour in California when American football (itself derived from Rugby) arrived from the eastern states in 1886.
‘Cal’ joined in with the gridiron movement, and in 1892 the first of the now traditional ‘Big Game’ annual football contests took place against Stanford University.
The development though of American football into the early 20th century produced a particularly violent and dangerous game – the figures quoted vary depending upon the source, but it is claimed that something in the order of 18 college footballers were killed playing gridiron in 1906, with another 160 suffering significant injury.
A national outrage against the sport reached all the way to President Theodore Roosevelt, who implored the College football administrators to “change the game or forsake it.”
Back in California, there was already a movement to “forsake it” well under way. The initiative was led by ‘Cal’ and Stanford Universities, who agreed to change their annual ‘Big Game’ from gridiron to Rugby.
In a fortunate coincidence, the NZRU had arranged for their triumphant All Blacks party to return home from the UK via Canada and California.
‘Cal’ officials negotiated with the All Blacks management for two showcase games to be played at the Recreation Ground (San Francisco) and the University of California (Berkeley). In the hope of providing some semblance of competition for the New Zealanders, a ‘British Columbia’ team travelled down from the neighbouring Canadian province.
The Stanford Daily reported on 22 March 1906:
Be it resolved: that we recommend to the conference that the game of Rugby shall be substituted for the present game of football until such time as a satisfactory national game shall be developed.
The San Francisco Bulletin wrote of the first ‘Big Game’ under Rugby in November 1906:
For it was yesterday that Miss Rugby, as scarred and scornful veterans are apt to refer to the British game of scrum and dribble, made her official debut in California … There are two ways to judge of football success — watch the crowd and ask the players. The hoarse-throated throng that followed the new game from the Berkeley bleachers yesterday was at first bewildered by the kinetoscopic rapidity of the play, but as the teams swung back and forth within a forty or fifty yard area from minute to minute, they rose to their feet and hurled delirious cheer after cheer upon the sweating soldiers of chance. The excitement took like vaccine virus … The players tell me that Rugby is a growing passion. mild at first and obsessing at the end of a season. After yesterday’s defeat, the U.C. men may begin to talk about knitting needles and dominoes, but the Stanford victors assert that the imported pastime is genuine business, with a real stick in it. It is a painful thing to have to agree with the faculties of two universities, but I think Rugby has came to stay. Next year both teams will be more proficient … In consequence of the spirit displayed in the …first intercollegiate Rugby football game ever played in California — in fact, in the whole United States — there was only one man who left the field in a dejected mood. That man was the Berkeley Coroner.
In the wake of the All Blacks visit and the lead of ‘Cal’ and Stanford, a change-over from gridiron to Rugby swept through California’s high schools and universities, while in San Francisco the Barbarians (ex-pats) and Olympic (locals) clubs were founded. Santa Clara University took up Rugby in 1908. A combined Californian team played British Columbia, and the Rugby code soon spread into Nevada.
The California-Stanford ‘Big Game’ lost none of its lustre or appeal by being played under Rugby rules, continuing to draw attendances well beyond 20,000.
In February 1909 the Wallabies visited California on their way home from the UK, playing matches against ‘Cal’, Stanford and an ‘All-California’ team.
The following year the two universities (along with the University of Nevada) combined to send a representative team on a 14-game tour of NSW and New Zealand.
During their visit the Americans played Sydney University three times, but were unable to defeat the home side.
The code was also boosted by extended visits to California and Nevada from the Wallabies (13 matches in 1912) and All Blacks (13 matches in 1913).
One-sided games were predicted, but put in context when it was pointed out that the same would happen to Sydney, Otago, Oxford, or Cambridge Universities if the New Zealand or Australian teams were pitted against them.The Wallabies though were toppled by both Stanford (13-12) and California (6-5).
The Australians were impressed that while their tour matches could not top 10,000, the 1912 ‘Big Game’ they attended pulled well over 25,000 fans.
Rugby was given a further kick along when Wallabies star Danny Carroll opted to enrol at Stanford rather than return to home with the team. He became the most influential figure on the field and as a coach.
The gate-takings at the 1913 match exceeded US$50,000. The contest had been officiated by NSWRU Secretary, WW Hill, who had been especially invited to travel from Sydney to provide an impartial and expert referee.
Hill later spoke in awe of “the enthusiasm and organisation … chorus-singers of the football fans was so wonderful – mere words cannot convey to you any idea of the wonderful scene; it can be appreciated only by those who have gazed-upon the novel sight, and heard the college songs sung by the thousands”.
The decline of Rugby began in early 1914 when after three years the University of Southern California announced they had given the code away for the coming football season.
While Rugby had been exceptionally successful at California and Stanford, at USC the team was not particularly formidable or a draw-card, and its neighbouring Occidental and Pomona colleges had stayed with American football. The USC student body saw more opportunity for much-needed income and prestige by saying good-bye to its foray into Rugby.
The war in Europe also had its effect, with a planned visit by a combined Oxford-Cambridge team from England abandoned, and the American Amateur Athletic Union had announced a USA Rugby team would take part in the 1916 Olympic Games.
The University of California swapped to gridiron for the 1915 season, proffering that the dangers and violence of Rugby were too much to continue with.
Few accepted the logic of such a claim, with it being plain to all that the blue-and-gold contingent had been at odds with the California Rugby Union over selections of rep teams and other issues since at least 1913.
A 36-8 belting from Stanford in the November 1914 game helped the cause of those plotting to drop Rugby (including the team’s coach).
The Cardinals had declared ‘Stanford is (the) back of the union in every sense of the word’ and at a rally held after Cal’s defection proclaimed ‘Rugby is not dead here, Why it isn’t even sick’.
Stanford kept the annual ‘Big Game’ going under Rugby by playing against Santa Clara University 1915-17, and continued to pull crowds over 40,000.
With the war taking its toll though the ‘Big Game’ at the end of 1917 was Stanford’s last game where Varsity ‘football’ meant ‘Rugby’. An inglorious 28-5 loss was a sad end to the era.
Our story though has a bright postscript – the American Rugby team that won gold medals at the 1920 and ’24 Olympics was primarily composed of veterans from the Santa Clara and Stanford Rugby days.
© Sean Fagan