When the French and United States of America rugby teams walked out onto the pitch at Stade Olympique de Colombes in Paris on Sunday 18 May 1924 for the final of the rugby tournament, few could have anticipated either the extraordinary result of the match or that it would be the last time that rugby would feature in the Olympic Games until 2016, ninety two years later.
The previous rugby tournament at the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp had only attracted interest from the French Rugby Federation and the California Rugby Union. The British rugby unions were not prepared to take part as a combined team and the other two invited international teams, Romania and Czechoslovakia, decided not to participate. The California Rugby Union sent a team to represent the USA consisting predominantly of Californian university students and past-students, whose sporting experience was in American Football and a number of whom had fought in the latter stages of the 1st World War.
There were two matches played in 1920 between France and the USA. With no other countries involved, the first match on 5 September in Antwerp was designated the Olympic Final and was won 8-0 by the USA thereby giving the USA the Gold medal. The second was played after the Olympic Games on 10 October 1920 at Stade Colombes in Paris where France avenged their earlier defeat in winning 14-5. Strangely, France did not award caps to their players for playing in the first match, the Olympic Final, but did award caps for playing in the second match in Paris in October.
When preparations were being made for the rugby tournament at the 1924 Olympics Games in Paris, the United States were invited by the French Olympic Committee to come to Paris to defend their title. They were keen to do so and, once again, the players were drawn mainly from the Californian universities and had to find their own funding to finance the trip. In addition to the two 1920 rivals, Romania decided to send a team to Paris but no other teams were attracted or persuaded to do so which left an uneven tournament with just three countries involved.
The USA squad was experienced and consisted of 24 players, five of whom had played in the 1920 Olympic Final in Antwerp. Their captain was Colby ‘Babe’ Slater, a 1st World War veteran and giant of a forward, and their half-back Rudy Scholz had not only played in the Antwerp Final but had also played against the 1913 touring All Blacks in North America at the age of 17. The French squad consisted of 30 players, many of whom were experienced internationals. Adolphe Jaureguy, was their exceptionally fast try-scoring machine on the left wing, and Rene Lasserre and Marcel Lubin-Lebrere were veterans of the 1st World War and formidable members of the French pack.
The Romanian squad of 23 players was neither internationally very experienced nor expected to win their two matches. They suffered a very heavy defeat to France (61-3) in their first match on 4 May 1924 and were beaten convincingly by the USA (37-0) a week later on 11 May, thus ending their involvement in the tournament. This left France and the USA to contest the final at Stade Colombes on Sunday 18 May, four years after their historic clash in Antwerp. Although the French were expected to win and at one stage the betting was 20-1 in their favour, there were only four survivors from the French teams that played the USA in 1920 and they were nervous of the physical stature and sporting prowess of the Americans. The referee for the final was the experienced Welshman, Albert Freethy, who would gain immortality under a year later by sending off Charles Brownlie in the international between England and the invincible New Zealanders at Twickenham.
Played on a hot and humid afternoon in front of a large partisan crowd, the Olympic Final began with several close-fought exchanges before the American back row forward Linn Farish scored the first of his two tries. The conversion was missed but the American dominance continued with the French winger, Adolph Jaureguy, having an uncomfortable time coping with the ferocious tackling of the American backs. At half-time, the score was still only 3-0 in favour of the USA but, when the French team came out for the second half, it was noticed that Jaureguy had not returned to the field. France were now down to 14 men and only seven forwards.
The USA team asserted its dominance in the opening skirmishes of an increasingly fraught contest which saw the French team reduced to 13 men for parts of the second half. Eventually the floodgates opened and the USA broke through with the forwards Jack Patrick and Linn Farish scoring tries, the first of which was converted by the American full back, Charles Doe, to give them a lead of 11-0. France hit back with an unconverted try by their fly half, Henri Galau, after a mix-up behind the USA line following a high punt, but with only 13 men on the field following a dislocated knee-cap suffered by the French winger, Jean Vaysse, France’s resistance finally broke.
In the closing minutes of the game, the right winger Rogers whose tackling had so disconcerted Jaureguy in the 1st half and the prop forward Caesar Manelli crossed for further tries leaving the USA victorious by 17 points to 3 points. The USA had scored five tries to one and the result was a disaster for France who were very fortunate to have 13 men left on the field at the end of the game as Marcel Lubin-Lebrere was ordered off for fighting but reprieved at the specific request of the American captain, Babe Slater.
So why was rugby removed from the Olympic Games? Was it perhaps that the powers in international rugby in the 1920s were scared by the quality and raw talent of the Americans? Perhaps the last word should be left to the referee. Albert Freethy said after the match that “With several more weeks of training, this US team could beat any team in Europe, not barring the best of the British Isles. They play a great game.”
- Les Capes du Matin Vol III (Georges Pastre – Midi Olympique – 1970)
- For the Glory (Mark Ryan – JR Books – 2009)
- Le Rugby aux Jeux Olympiques (Pierre Vitalien – Imprimerie Technicouleurs – 2007)
- Rugby Pioneers and Frederic Humbert (including YouTube footage of the 1924 Olympic Final)
- World Rugby Museum Archive
About the Author – A professional musician and arts administrator, Richard Steele has had a life-long love of sport. He has been on the committee of the World Rugby Museum at Twickenham since 2005.