The ‘First Wallabies’ rugby tour of Britain in 1908/09 is a familiar yarn, but that of 1912’s ‘Kangaroo Waratahs’?
A century ago the second Australian team to cross the equator left our shores, off to aid the cause of rugby in the USA.
Rugby had been enjoying a rapid rise in support on the west coast of the USA – a situation brought about by an ongoing national controversy over the number of players killed or injured playing American college football (USA President Theodore Roosevelt had implored college football administrators to “change the game or forsake it”), combined with the timely presence and influence of rugby-inclined officials in key positions within California’s universities.
In a further fortunate coincidence the New Zealand Rugby Union had arranged for their triumphant 1905 All Blacks party to return home from the UK in the early part of 1906 via Canada and California.
Staff from the University of California (‘Cal’) negotiated with the All Blacks management to showcase the rugby game via matches 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. Though the All Blacks won both matches easily (43-6 and 65-6), the sweeping ball-passing and running rugby illustrated a marked point of difference from gridiron (still yet to legalise the forward pass play).
The decision was made by Cal and Stanford to change over to rugby, beginning with their famous annual ‘Big Game’ in October 1906. Following that lead, rugby swept through California’s high schools and universities.
A combined Californian team established annual visits to and from British Columbia, and rugby soon spread into Nevada. The Big Game lost none of its lustre or appeal under rugby rules, continuing to draw attendances well beyond 20,000 with the usual college fervour, songs and colour.
In February 1909 the Wallabies visited California on their way home from the UK. The Aussies weren’t in the All Blacks’ class, and the Americans were fast improving in their adopted code, but the Wallabies still won all three games (27-0 versus Cal, 13-3 versus Stanford; 17-0 versus All-California).
The following year Cal, Stanford and 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 visitors though did lower the colours of country rep XVs at West Maitland (bt Hunter 10-6) and Orange (bt Central West 11-9).
In early 1912 the fledgling Californian Rugby Union optimistically issued an invitation to the NSWRU, hoping that they could arrange for an “Australasian” team (combining NSW, Queensland and NZ) to tour the USA’s west coast cities. The NZRU opted against participating.
Despite the expense, and that the Californians were not affiliated to the English RFU (or IRB), the NSWRU determined to proceed with the visit. Partly this was to amplify that players under the NSWRU had wider international scope than the professional game, but also as the NSWRL had the year before come close to accepting speculative offers from USA syndicates to send a 30-man rugby league squad to the USA Pacific coast cities to hold exhibition matches.
The Californians themselves had been playing rugby with teams reduced to 14 players.
Captained by Ward Prentice, a stalwart inside back from the Western Suburbs club who had first played for NSW on their 1907 visit to Perth, the 23-man Australian team (five Queenslanders including vice-captain Tom Richards) were presented with sky blue jerseys adorned with a waratah above the word “Australia”.
The team’s manager, Dr Otto Bohrsmann, was one of the more outspoken voices within the NSWRU in the early 1910s, with his favoured target rugby league.
He dryly argued that “the cleavage had acted on rugby like a spring cleaning, and the game had emerged cleaner and better in every respect on rugby,” adding on another occasion that “The union had no room for piebalds or skewbalds. Members must play the game as the rules and constitution provided.”
Upon arriving in San Francisco, in his dockside interviews Bohrsmann began raising doubts about the use of paid coaches in California rugby, and that in Sydney and elsewhere in the rugby world such a practice was seen as professionalism.
The American newspapers quickly began to talk up the box-office appeal of the Australian rugby team “as probably one of the best rugby teams in the world” who were “here to exemplify rugby” and how it should be played to spectacular effect.
The Los Angeles Times headlined the tourists as the ‘Kangaroo Waratahs’, the San Francisco Call nicknamed them the ‘Southern Cross Stars’ and emblazoned “Rah! Rah! Waratah!” in a page-wide banner lead.
The Aussies won 11 of their 13 matches, including a 12-8 victory over the USA in a Test match – it was a fortunate escape given the home side led 8-0 with just ten minutes remaining.
With much of the tour itinerary involving matches against universities and colleges, the players spent a lot of their time as guests on campuses and billeted overnight stays at fraternity houses. Suffice to say, as Tom Richards’ biographer Greg Growden put it in Gold, Mud ‘n’ Guts, all “revelled in the wild student life” and it seemed to effect the on-field results (the two defeats were at the Universities – 13-12 to Stanford and 6-5 to California).
Though the Australians were a well-received team, attendances at their matches didn’t exceed 10,000. Yet, the Aussies were among a throng of 25,000 fans at the annual Stanford-California Big Game clash played under rugby laws. Outside of the UK, and in Sydney before the split with league, nowhere else in the world could boast of a larger attendance at a rugby game.
While it appeared that rugby was making good progress, Richards and his team mates were questioning the style of rugby game that the Americans were evolving. The local players and referees well understood the laws as they were written, but were blissfully unaware of the wider “spirit” and understanding that binds the game, making rugby what it is.
The Americans would break the scrum up the moment the ball had passed from the hooker, were seemingly incapable of passing the ball beyond flinging it away when in the midst of a tackle, and had no concept of how to defend against a posse of ball-passing three-quarters racing down the field at them.
Yet the Australians had difficulties beating these teams. At scrum time the two sets of backs in rugby traditionally stood deep, on the prospect that their pack might win possession of the ball, but the Americans stood flat in a line across the field up with the packs, were happy to lose the scrum, and swept forward to knock their opposite to the ground before, during and after the arrival of the ball.
The undoubted star of the 1912 tour was Dan Carroll, scoring 19 tries in 13 matches (including the three games in British Columbia). Carroll decided to stay in the USA and study for an engineering degree, and ultimately made the country his home.
Carroll played an integral role in the American rugby teams that won gold medals at the Olympic Games in 1920 (player-coach) and 1924 (coach). It completed a unique treble for Carroll, a member of the Wallabies team that won the Olympic gold medal in 1908.
The players in these USA rugby teams were college gridiron footballers. Though there was some legacy from the rugby boom before WWI that arguably contributed to their success, the last rugby Big Game was 1917.
The support for rugby had declined – partly out of influence from the east coast football colleges, a desire to play the same national game as the rest of the country at ‘football’, and that American football was itself reforming as a game in terms of player safety.
Had rugby been established for a longer period in California the story may have been different. However, with no rugby tradition and culture to draw upon, there was little fight left in rugby in California to stop the tide of the gridiron revival.
The Wallabies next played the USA at Anaheim in Los Angeles in early 1976 on the way home from their UK tour. Australia won 24-12. The first USA rugby team to visit Australia came in 1983 – playing a seven-match tour, the Eagles defeated WA, SA, Victoria and NSW Country, but lost to the Queensland Reds (14-10), Waratahs (19-13) and the Wallabies (49-3).
Since then rugby in the USA has begun to build a solid foundation, and may yet figure in the code’s first rank of national teams.