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One hundred and five years ago today, December 12, 1909, two rugby fifteens from Ottawa and Hamilton in Canada traveled south to New York City to give an exhibition of rugby. It represented the last chance for the game to be considered as a substitute for gridiron football on the east coast. Rugby had already replaced American football at Stanford and Cal in 1906 and at other western universities.
From the shocking newspaper article in the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune in 1905 that tallied 25 alleged high school and college gridiron deaths, the nation had started a dialogue to reform the brutal eleven man game, played without helmets or heavy padding. Reform, spurred on by the insistence of President Teddy Roosevelt, would occur, but there still lingered debate whether to add more reforms or ban the game as Columbia University did in 1905.
For a few rugby diehards, the 1909 exhibition in Manhattan might afford a favorable re-examination of the British contact game. Invited to watch numbered the who’s who of prominent exponents of gridiron, including, Walter Camp, Yale, Percy Houghton, Harvard coach, and Amos Alonzo Stagg, Chicago University coach.
The lowest NY Times sub-headline blared: “Interesting Contest On Trial Viewed by A Good-Sized Crowd With Varied Opinions.” Indeed, 3,000 people came to Van Cortland Park to view the exhibition, sponsored by the New York Herald newspaper.
The comments from the American experts if rugby should be adapted here surprised everyone…” (It) would entail a bigger hospital list, and possibly, more fatalities…” Here were two rugby teams without any protection playing the open passing and tackling game but found wanting by the native footballers who favored the mass play and wedge formations that contributed to fatalities and serious injuries.
Hamilton triumphed 11-6, both teams received praise for their enthusiasm and play. The Canadians returned home, and afterward, no one again suggested that American football revert to its rugby beginnings. More gridiron reform came in 1914 with the loosening of forward pass rules, and the addition of a fourth down. Columbia reinstated football in 1915, and, by 1918, all west coast universities reverted to American football. The one Canadian rugby game experiment of 1909 changed nothing.