The tour that killed American rugby
October 29, 2013
Alex McDonald led the All Blacks to America © PA Photos
A century ago New Zealand were on tour, but not to any of their more familiar haunts. The 1913 All Blacks went to the west coast of the United States and Canada. It was a visit with far-reaching consequences for rugby union in general, and the American game in particular.
It came at a time when rugby was offering a serious challenge to American Football as the dominant football code on the west coast. Much of the US, including President Teddy Roosevelt - whose personal machismo made him particularly in tune with the local code of football - had engaged in debate about its direction during the 'football crisis' of 1906, prompted by worries over violent play, serious injuries and evidence of sharp practice by college coaches.
The leading colleges of the west coast took their disquiet a step further, with Stanford and the Berkeley-based University of California abandoning football and taking up rugby,. From 1906 on their annual 'Big Game', one of the great American sporting rivalries, was contested under rugby rules. Some other colleges, such as Santa Clara University followed, and there was the bonus of the established rugby colony across the Canadian border in British Columbia.
The All Blacks had already played their part in the story, with the pioneering Originals of 1905 returning from their (almost) all-conquering tour of Britain and France via the West Coast, where they demonstrated the possibilities of the game to a receptive Californian audience in two exhibition matches against British Columbia teams.
Nor were the All Blacks taking part in purely disinterested missionary work. A worthwhile opponent on the far side of the Pacific would have been a considerable plus for New Zealand, far from secure in their relationship with the British Unions after the loud complaints about their playing style - focussed on the role of the 'rover' during the 1905 tour.
South Africa may have arrived in Britain a year later, in 1906, but were invited back first in 1912. Australia, similarly unsure about British sympathies after their tour of 1908 - skipper Herb Moran would later note that comparatively few of his squad volunteered for First World War service in attributed this in part to the reception they received in the UK - was also keen to develop contact.
A Californian student team toured Australia and New Zealand in 1910 and while they lost most matches was not disgraced, and managed a draw with Auckland. The Californian rugby authorities asked for a visit by a joint Australasian team. This was declined - New Zealand, having pulled itself fully free from Australia only a dozen years before, was wary of trans-Tasman entanglements. But it produced what looked a happier outcome - visits by the Wallabies and All Blacks in consecutive years.
And the Americans certainly had every reason for optimism after the Wallaby visit of 1912. The tour culminated in an All America v Australia test match which the hosts dominated for long periods, leading 8-3 midway through the second half and 8-6 within five minutes of the end, before the Australians finally prevailed 12-8.
The San Francisco Chronicle exulted that "America has arrived on the international map, and it will be looking down upon all the other nations in a few more years, ready to lend a hand as it does in all other forms of athletics".
Not all of the Australians were admiring of their hosts. There was some criticism that over-coaching, violence and a tendency to take out men off the ball had been carried through from American Football. But a team member, Daniel Carroll, a veteran of the 1908 squad, chose to stay behind and enrol as a student at Stanford.
The All Blacks clearly took the tour seriously. They chose a full-strength side, led by Alexander McDonald, the last of the veterans of 1905 to play international rugby. As a warm-up they slaughtered Australia 30-5 - the heaviest defeat yet administered by the All Blacks in their frequently one-sided rivalry with their closest neighbour, and still 12th on the all-time list.
Leaving a reserve squad to deal with the Wallabies, they went off to California, where they wrought further havoc on their hosts. In 12 matches against mostly Californian opposition - there was also a trip to play the University of Nevada - they scored 457 points, conceding only a single score, a try from a University of California prop called Abrams.
Players of the University of Southern California Trojans rugby team compete © Getty Images
University of California were defeated 38-3 and 33-0. Stanford, which by this stage had a clear edge in the 'Big Game' rivalry, was victimised still further, by 54-0 and 56-0.
The last hope of the hosts was the All America v New Zealand Test played at Berkeley on November 15, 1913. The Americans summoned 23 players to prepare for the match, before sending out a selected 15 including four UCal players and seven from Stanford, among them Carroll.
If they hoped for better, the outcome was even worse than before, attributed by a University of California report to 'the even more than usual excellence of the New Zealanders and, second, the lack of team-work of the Americans.'
A crowd of more than 10,000 saw the New Zealanders break through after four minutes and six more times before the break, when they led 27-3. By the end it was 51-3, with the All Blacks crossing 13 times. The names of the scorers - Doddy Gray (2), McDonald (2), Dyce McGregor, Jock McKenzie (2), Toby Murray (2), Dick Roberts (3) and Jim Wylie - testified to the extent of Scottish influence in early New Zealand. The ball from the match is in New Zealand's National Rugby Museum, presented by the family of All Black captain Frank Mitchinson.
The only score for the Americans was a 40-yard penalty by Stuart Peart, a wing from the University of California, following a break from Mow Mitchell, a Los Angeles-based half-back who impressed Australian referee Billy Hill. Mitchell was one of two Americans injured during the match. The All Blacks allowed replacements and it rather sounds as if they could have allowed all 23 Americans to play at the same time and still won.
Referee Hill reckoned the real difference was in the quality of the two packs. It may also be significant that none of the American team had gone on the student tour only three years earlier. There may have been talent in their numbers but, Carroll apart, very little real experience.
The impact on Californian rugby was profound. The San Francisco Post spoke for the depression induced by the result :"The Californian players are the best we have developed in seven years of intercollegiate rugby - the very best. And the score against them was 51 to 3. The only conclusion is that we have not yet learned how to play rugby. It is still a foreign game."
Spalding's Guide, the main US sporting almanac of the time, reported in 1914 that "The rumblings are not just giving vent to a wounded pride. We have not mastered the rudiments of rugby".
The impact was felt particularly at the University of California. Decent 'Big Game' results - it won every game between 1909 and 1911, with a draw in 1912, were outweighed by a feeling of being cut off from the national mainstream which seeded pressure for a return to American football. Roberta Peck has written that the shattering defeats by the All Blacks "contributed to the already growing disaffection that many students and sports enthusiasts felt for rugby".
In 1915 the University of California returned to football. Stanford hung on for a few more years and generated an extraordinary legacy in the Olympic-winning teams of 1920 (with Carroll as player-coach) and 1924 (coached by 1913 centre Charles Austin), but by 1919 The Big Game was once more an American Football fixture, as it has remained ever since.
Perhaps the attempt to make rugby California's game was always a doomed, quixotic pitch against increasing odds. It is hard not to believe that as football became increasingly popular in the inter-war years, the west coast colleges would not have chosen to return whence they had come. But it remains one of the great might-have-beens of rugby history - and one that a characteristically ruthless bunch of All Blacks played no little part in wrecking.
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