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Great Moments in Stanford Olympic History: Rugby Mania

Longtime Stanford coach Harry Maloney selected the 1920 U.S. team.

Longtime Stanford coach Harry Maloney selected the 1920 U.S. team.

This is the first in a series highlighting Stanford's achievements in the Olympic Games. This series is limited to gold-medal accomplishments by athletes who were current or former Stanford students at the time of their performances.

June 12, 2012

STANFORD, Calif. - Rugby hasn't been played in the Olympic Games since 1924 when a Stanford-led United States team won the second of back-to-back gold medals, this one in front of an angry mob in Paris.

Stanford had eight players on the 1920 team and nine in 1924.

Harry Maloney, who coached seven sports at Stanford (not all at once) from 1908-44, trained the 1920 team and brought along many of his own players, including greats Danny Carroll, Swede Righter, and Dink Templeton. Carroll, an Olympic champion in 1908 for his native Australia, was the U.S. team's player-coach.

The 1920 Olympic tournament in Antwerp, Belgium, consisted of a single game against France. With a September start to the Games, England argued that the schedule was too early in the British season, and Romania and Czechoslovakia withdrew at the last minute. Still, the U.S.-France matchup was worthy of an Olympic final, with the two having advanced to the championship of the Inter-Allied Games a year earlier.

France had won that contest and would beat the Americans in a post-Olympic tour, but the U.S. won when it counted, in an 8-0 upset over the reigning European champions.

After a trans-Atlantic crossing aboard an overcrowded Army transport ship, the U.S. -- made up entirely of students from Stanford, Cal, and Santa Clara -- took advantage of the wet and slippery conditions in front of 20,000 watching in the rain at Beerschot Stadium.

The U.S. chose to play a forward game, while the French stuck with a backfield game that proved fatal in the muck, which neutralized its speed.

In the middle of a scoreless second half, the U.S. forwards dribbled forward and set up a drop kick in front of the goal. Accounts vary to the distance - 10 yards in one and 55 in another. Either way, Templeton drop-kicked the ball through the posts for a 3-0 lead.

Late in the game, a French fumble deep in its own territory set up a try by Joseph Hunter, who retrieved the ball and fell over the goal line. That clinched gold for Stanford's contingent that also included Charles Doe, Morris Kirksey, John Patrick, Colby Slater, and Heaton Wrenn.

Kirksey, a Palo Alto High product, actually won gold medals in two sports at the same Games. Kirksey also was part of the winning 400-meter relay in track and won silver in the 100 meters.

A note on Kirksey, his image was shown in the 1981 film Chariots of Fire, a fact-based account of the 1924 Olympics that won an Oscar for Best Picture, but he was misidentified. In prepping Britain's Harold Abrahams for the upcoming Games, coach Sam Mussabini points to a projected image of Kirksey and identifies him as Jackson Scholz, one of the American stars that Abrahams would face.

The 1920 upset was even more pronounced considering that rugby had been played in the U.S. for a relatively short amount of time. Rugby took hold on college campuses when worries about safety, largely shut down American football. At Stanford, rugby replaced football as its signature sport from 1906-16. But after football began to return to campus after World War I, rugby's popularity began to wane.

By 1920, the U.S. Olympic Committee refused to even fund the trip. But Stanford can thank rival Cal for the Americans' inclusion in the Games. Cal's successful tour of British Columbia sparked a renewed interest in the U.S. for sending a team, but it only happened because the California Rugby Union paid for the trip - thanks to fundraisers at dances and baseball games. The CRU president, Maloney, therefore selected the team.

At the 1924 Games in Paris, the defending champion U.S. was again seen as a potential foil for the powerful French. The only other team that bothered to come was Romania, a weak opponent.

"They were looking for a punching bag," said Norman Cleaveland, a Stanford standout, who is quoted in an account of the tournament on rugbyfootballhistory.com. "We were told to go to Paris and take our beatings like gentlemen."

"They were throwing bottles and rocks and clawing at us through the fence. We had no idea what was going to happen."
-- Norman Cleaveland

Seven holdovers from the 1920 team joined 15 football players on the 22-member squad, which lost four tuneup games in England and then was subject to a rough passage across the English Channel. Upon arrival in France, immigration officials mistakenly refused the team entry, but the players, many of them seasick, forced their way off the boat.

The French media immediately branded them "streetfighters and saloon brawlers," and the public followed suit, treating the U.S. team with a level of hostility beyond anything they could have anticipated. A dispute over the referee for the U.S.-France game, and the woeful patch of grass the U.S. was assigned as a practice field, fanned the flames of the anti-American sentiment.

The French withdrew all help in securing practice fields, questioned the amateurism of some U.S. players, and banned the team from filming the France-Romania game. The U.S. team's hotel rooms were robbed and the team was cursed and spat upon in public.

After each team routed Romania, the stage was set for the U.S.-France final. The odds were set at 20-to-1 for France and the 50,000 at Colombes Stadium expected nothing short of a rout. But those expectations came to a crashing halt, thanks to a vicious tackle by Stanford's Lefty Rodgers on French star Adolphe Juarranguy headed for the goal-line. Another hard tackle moments later left Juarranguy dazed and bleeding, to the ire of the fans.

Continued ferocious, though legal, attacks disheartened the French and the Americans scored five tries in what would be a 17-3 victory. Late the match, French hooligans began beating up American fans in the stands and the players thought they would be next.

"They were throwing bottles and rocks and clawing at us through the fence," Cleaveland said. "We had no idea what was going to happen."

The Americans were escorted off the field by French gendarmes to safety and, afterward, were praised for their incredible upset, which Cleaveland later likened to the "Miracle on Ice," the 1980 U.S. hockey victory over the USSR. Even the French reacted in kind, appreciating the Americans' athletic ability and stunning success.

However, the U.S. team - which included Stanford's Cleaveland, Doe, Patrick, Rodgers, Phillip Clark, Dudley DeGroot, Robert Devereaux, Linn Farrish, and Richard Hyland - returned home to little fanfare. Rugby hasn't been seen since on the Olympic stage, though the `sevens' version is slated to be played at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.

-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics



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