Rugby at the 1924 Olympic Games – a false dawn

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.

Rugby Olympic Games 1924

Olympic Games 1924 – Rugby captains Slater (USA) and Lasserre (France) with referee Albert Freethy

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.”

Sources consulted:

  • 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.


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8 Responses to Rugby at the 1924 Olympic Games – a false dawn

  1. Richard,
    thanks – great read. I suspect the American domination on the field was not the reason for rugby Olympic demise, rather I suggest the cost of sending teams (rugby) was more likely. With just two and three different nations sending side to attend games I would think ‘lack of interest’ probably due to cost killed the concept.
    Putting it in an Australian context; Harry Gordon’s Australia and the Olympic Games lists the number of Aussie competitors; in 1920 it was just 13 (4 sports) and in 1924 larger but thirty five (8 sports)
    . A rugby squad of 20 odd had to be financed somehow..

    Liked by 2 people

    • Larry Freitas says:

      Interesting read, especially in that I personally met Rudy Scholz at a “social” following matches played on a Saturday at Santa Clara University in February of 1974. He was in his late 70’s then, and still playing the occasional game for an over 40’s team, the California Bald Eagles. The 1920 Americans did have plenty of rugby playing experience, as Scholz and just about all of that team had played the game in that “rugby era” in California (1906-1918) in college, or high school, such as team captain Colby Slater, who played rugby at Berkeley High School, but American football at the University of California Agriculture School, as the University of California, along with St. Mary’s College, had switched back to playing “gridiron” by the fall of 1915. I would say that those two universities going back to the American game were primary reasons that rugby would fall out of favor in California by 1918. Xenophobia would be the secondary reason, as even though our British allies played rugby, it was a “foreign” sport, and nationalism prevailed at the time that America entered the Great War. The 1924 team certainly had many more players who had only gridiron experience, such as Manelli of Santa Clara College, but Rogers of Stanford University had both experiences, as Stanford managed to keep rugby going as a “club” sport, meaning it wasn’t a “team” sport like gridiron, with funding from the school. Many on the 1924 squad had to learn the game during the winter and spring of that year, training in the San Francisco area. Scholz and a handful of others were returning players, but they hadn’t played the sport much in the ensuing four years. Scholz, by then a lawyer in San Francisco, was actually playing American football for the Olympic Club, an amateur sports club better known for its golf course in The City by the Bay.
      I’d like to point out that in 1900 France won the gold for rugby at the Olympics, the competition a Frankfurt club representing Germany, and Great Britain represented by the Moseley Wanderers. In 1908 when the sport returned to the Olympics, Australia would be the winners, and Great Britain would be represented by Cornwall, the county champions. Unfortunately the British Lions went on tour that year Down Under, or they might have been the representing team. Danny Carroll, who won gold with Australia in 1908, played with the New South Wales side that toured California in the fall of 1912. He stayed in California, played against the All Blacks the following year for the California All Star side (considered a ‘test side’), and later served in the American Army as a lieutenant during the Great War, winning the Distinguished Service Cross. In 1920 he received a degree in geology from Stanford, and was a “player-coach” for the 1920 Olympic champions.
      I’d suggest that rugby in the Olympics would have been the perfect sport for the games, in that it was amateur for so long, even past the time that the Olympics dropped the professional ban. Perhaps if New Zealand and South Africa, athletes from those nations having participated in many other sports, would have bothered to enter a team in the rugby competition, it would have remained in the games over the following decades.
      The other “what if?” is if xenophobia and two California colleges’ decisions to return to gridiron hadn’t doomed rugby there. California is the only state of the lower 48 in which rugby really took a hold as a major sport, right up there with baseball at that time a century back, but I’m quite sure that if a Lions team and an All Blacks and Springboks team had shown up in 1920 and 1924, America would not have won a gold medal. In 1920 the American stayed in Europe and played more games in France after the Olympics. France won in a rematch. In 1924 the Americans trained in England before going to France for the games, and lost to Blackheath.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Richard Steele says:

    This is fascinating extra information, Larry – thanks. Frederic Humbert has contacted me with some more info about the crowd trouble at the match. He believes that the press reports of the crowd trouble were exaggerated. He makes the following points:

    – the game was tough but correct in all aspects – except for a “soft” exchange of punches during first half for which referee Mr Freethy only gave oral warning. French players and officials all agree on that point (some literature and wikipedia are however getting confused by 1919 Interallied games, which was an ugly dog fight…)
    – Public booed the US team and flag at the end of the game. That was possibly more shocking in these days than today…
    – The American papers reported that two American citizens were injured. The first one (Gideon Nelson) was hit by a cane, went to the hospital for stitches and was back to the hotel the same day. The second felt or was pushed in the stairs. Got hurt but didn’t go to hospital, so I can imagine that injuries were not too serious (even though Ryan claims that both were “disfigured for life”…)
    – One Californian newspaper (and subsequently Ryan) mentions that US players were robbed in the changing room during the game. I could not find any second source to confirm, neither in US press nor in French press, nor in official Olympic reports.

    Thanks for this, Frederic – it must have been quite a match!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Larry Freitas says:

      Well, with the rugby 7’s now over, Australia can claim two gold medals: 1908 and 2016!
      “For the Glory” by Mark Ryan is an excellent account of the 1920 and 1924 American rugby Olympic champs, a great read. I’d suggest that book for any rugby historian who has not heard the story of rugby in California a century plus a decade ago. Why rugby? American football came close to being banned as a sport in the USA after a few deaths in colleges during games in 1905. President Theodore Roosevelt demanded changes to the rules of the game to make it safer to play. In California rugby took hold as an alternative to gridiron football in 1906. By the fall of 1908 just about any secondary school and college that had had an American football team in 1905 had switched to playing rugby. New South Wales in 1912, and the following year New Zealand, toured California. and the two-man front row was to be employed in California from these encounters. The great Stanford v University of California football rivalry ceased for several years because of the decision by Cal in the spring of 1915 to return to the American game, along with the Christian Brothers school St. Mary’s. Jesuit college Santa Clara and Stanford continued the “Big Game” rivalry in 1916 and 1917, winning one each, in front of large crowds for both games at a baseball park in San Francisco, Ewing Field. In one photo from the 1916 game, the baseball infield can be seen in the background, and one sees half back Rudy Scholz backing up play as his team mate is tackled by a Stanford player. The irony now is that Cal and St. Mary’s are two of the three best rugby schools in the USA, the other being Utah’s Brigham Young University.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Larry, thanks I’m looking at getting the book and after some quick internet work see Mark Ryan also wrote Try For The Gold America’s Olympic Rugby Medals. Is this a larger format volume with more images? Is there overlap? Also one small correction it was an Australian side that toured the USA in 1912 not NSW. They did of course wear a blue jersey with the Waratah emblem hence the confusion (but as the point of difference has Australia embroidered underneath. Michael Fahey

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  3. Larry Freitas says:

    Regarding the Aussie side of 1912, from what I understand union was only being played in New South Wales during that time, up until nearly 1930. Union in Queensland virtually disappeared after the 1908 Olympic Games; so many on that Olympic team team switched codes on their return home, and nearly all football clubs, such as Brisbane’s GPS, would play league instead; the QRU disolved during the Great War, re-established in 1928, and then some of those clubs reverted to union. So, you’re right in that NSW had to be the Australian representative, as there was no other significant union being played anywhere else. I believe New Zealand played them during this time and awarded caps. One can say the same of the “US” team that played the Aussies and Kiwis in 1912 and 1913. For all practical purposes, the team should have been labelled the San Francisco Bay Area Rugby All Stars, for all the American players represented Bay Area colleges and clubs, but there was no where near as much rugby being played anywhere else in America then.

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  4. Rennie Rice says:

    I hope to correct an often misreported result of the first USA match in England as well as clear up a perceived mystery regarding as to why Admiral Percy Royds was unacceptable as referee in the final Olympic match. The two are related.

    The matches in England have often been reported as all losses, variously three or four, by the US side. The first match, against an undersized Combined Naval Services team in Devonport, as reported the next day in The TImes (April 22, 1924), was in fact won by the Americans by a score of 25 to 3. Hyland, Williams and Rogers each scored two tries and Dixon one. Patrick kicked for two goals.

    It was an thoroughly embarrassing loss for the Royal Navy and for Commodore Charles Royds, commander of the Devonport Naval Facility, Director of Physical Health and Sports for the Admiralty and brother of Admiral Sir Percy Royds, himself the previous director. Sir Percy Royds, also President of the Royal Navy and Marines Rugby Union and naval representative to the RFU. Both men would be retired within three years. The Admiralty can be funny that way.

    There would be more to come. The next club the US would face was Blackheath… Sir Percy Royd’s old club. The Americans lost in an ugly fashion by a close score of 13 points to 9. Various reports put the number of penalties called against the Americans from between fifteen to twenty during the match and note a consistent refusal by the referee to explain the offense. The Times of Thursday, April 24 said, “The Americans lost, but were anything but discredited in the losing, for, in spite of their obvious limitations in finer points of the game, as we understand it…” And later noting “…a lack of knowledge of Rugby Union rules…” Oh my!

    I should imagine it was Oxford student American team member Alan Valentine, a Rhodes Scholar and member of the Blues, that informed Coach Austin of the identity of the referee scheduled for the Olympic Gold match. Undoubtedly, as well, as to the un-likelihood of there being a level playing field on the pitch. Sneaky Admiral…and the French were in on it, they suggested him.

    One final comment to add. In my research I have seen various dates attributed to the advent of the American “baseball” style thrown in on line-outs, arguably the most distinctive American contribution to the sport of rugby. In the article above it mentions the following, “…(an American) baseball pitch to the line out…” This is the earliest reference I have found to that development.

    Liked by 1 person

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