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On a Saturday, November 5, 1959, at Twickenham Stadium, 58,000 rugby fans attended the annual Oxford versus Cambridge Varsity Match. It was then as celebrated a game as any of the annual four England Test matches against the other three Home Countries and France. These two universities had played this match since 1872.
What fans saw that day was an astonishing long throw, a revolutionary lineout tactic that British rugby had never witnessed before. The main reason why no player from the UK or Ireland had attempted this long throw was that none possessed the ability to hurl a squat oval rugby ball a long distance. It would take an American accustomed to pigskin passes to implement the long throw. He was Pete Dawkins, a Rhodes Scholar and West Point football All-American, a 1958 Heisman Trophy winner.
Dawkins’ rose meteorically and quickly to the top echelon of rugby at Oxford that autumn; first, playing for Brasenose, his college, next for the Greyhounds, the Oxford JV, and, finally, promotion to the varsity fifteen. His spectacular try scoring on the wing captured the media’s attention in Great Britain, and in American newspapers, especially, the NY Times.
Malcolm Phillips, the Oxford captain, had seen Dawkins throw an American football during training sessions and wondered if the Yank could also throw an oval rugby ball. In secret, for weeks before the Cambridge match, Dawkins and Phillips practiced this line out maneuver. In the second half of the match, Phillips signaled for the aerial surprise, and Dawkins let loose the overhead pass of over thirty-yards to Phillips, who caught the ball and romped forty-yards before being tackled. The surprise throw caught Cambridge off-guard.
The Times of London, adding color and some hyperbole, called the play “a left-handed torpedo throw in…more like a rocket and which might have been learned at Cape Canaveral.”
Oxford won 9-3, in a match without tries. At wing, Dawkins only touched the ball twice that day but his sure tackling did not let his opposite winger break free.
After the game an Oxford teammate, referring to the long pass, said admiringly, “The rest of the chaps are trying it now too.”
(The Penn Mutual College Rugby Championship awards the Pete Dawkins' Trophy to the winner of the June tournament. The award is a cup with the base containing an etched replica of the famous long, line out throw.)