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Our Olympic Sevens hopes turn to Cary, North Carolina, next weekend when, if the script falls into place, the USA Eagles will meet Canada in the finals of the NACRA qualifier for the North American place in Rio 2016. One nation advances, the other waits for the final repechage to determine the twelfth, and final tournament spot.
With a week to wait, it's time to think nice thoughts about our northern neighbors, for without its generous tour in 1874, who knows when rugby might have been introduced into the USA? More importantly to the national sports ethos, if no rugby, then no football to follow. (And, of course then, no Super Bowl parties or office pools.)
In 1869, Rutgers and Princeton played the first inter-collegiate game of soccer-football, a contest without carrying the ball or tackling. Eventually, Columbia, and Yale also played this kicking game and formed the first Football Association. Harvard eschewed membership, opting to play "The Boston Game," with running the ball across a goal line for a chance to kick a goal through the uprights. Importantly, if challenged by an opposing player, the ball could be carried, until the runner was tackled. Harvard sought out other colleges to play the tackling game without success.
The May 1874 Visit That Changed It All
Harvard's entreatments for other eastern colleges to play a more "manly" game fell on deaf ears. But in Canada, the McGill University rugby captain learned of Harvard's plight and offered to bring the school's rugby team to Cambridge to play one contest of the Boston game, and then a second match to introduce British rugby to the Americans. The balls were oval for both contests. Harvard won the first 3-0, while no score occurred in the second. Harvard liked the try for a score, and also preferred the other codified rugby rules that contributed to a more orderly game. Harvard traveled to Montreal in November 1874 for a return match. (See photo of the "Boston Game" played in Cambridge.)
A year later, Harvard challenged rival Yale to a game of football. Yale agreed to a dual game of soccer and rugby in what is known as the "Concessionary Rules" game played in New Haven on November 13, 1875. Harvard triumphed four goals to none. Yale concurred that rugby was superior to the soccer game. Two Princeton students watching returned to campus as missionaries for rugby.
Soon, most of the east coast colleges (Brown, Bowdoin, Dartmouth, etc.) took up the new sport, and eastern prep schools as well.
Rugby seemed entrenched as the autumn contact sport for American colleges. But, one Yale player in that first Harvard game, Walter Camp, lobbied for a reduction from fifteen men to eleven, three downs to keep possession if a gain of five-yards, and a line of scrimmage. Camp, who played in the first six Harvard-Yale contests, would prevail, facilitating the conversion of rugby into American style football. By 1882, almost all of the rugby-playing institutions converted to gridiron rules.
Canada Stayed Loyal to Rugby
Canada continued to expand rugby in Ontario and Quebec Provinces in the 1880s and 1890s. And, it created a twelve-man version of American gridiron, which formed its own association in 1903. Forward passing in Canadian football was not allowed until 1929, twenty-three years after its introduction in the USA.