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This week (starting last Saturday) marked the 60th anniversary of the historic Dartmouth RFC tour to England in 1958, the first American college or club rugby tour to Europe. An All-American tour from California visited Australia in the first decade of the 20th century, but no other US fifteen had ventured abroad (U. Cal visits to British Columbia not-with-standing) since those early days.
The improbability of planning this unique venture was compounded by the operational mishaps of sending players ad hoc to England in December. The credit for the former and the latter goes to the English Liesching family, father and son, working on opposite sides of the Atlantic.
Son Richard decided not to stay in England but matriculate in the USA, and chose Dartmouth, Class of 1959. In Hanover, he discovered that the college’s ruggers treated the sport somewhat casually, but, at the same time, were highly athletic and successful against local competition, going 9-0 in the spring of 1958. To give the Dartmouth fifteen a sample of the real thing, he suggested the unthinkable, a tour to England to play local sides over the Christmas holiday.
Back in England, Raymond, the father, found not only was there no interest from English clubs playing an American college, the English Rugby Union formally forbade it. No one knew if the Yanks could play rugby or followed its rules. Besides, tours to England were made years in advance, and not on the quick. Schedules were not to be tampered with for any reason.
“Don’t come! There are no games,” telephoned the father to his son.
The trip was off and most of the Dartmouth players went home.
The next day, a light on the horizon, as one English side agreed to a fixture.
Dartmouth decided that even if only one game, the team – or how many could be rounded up to make a team – would cross the Atlantic.
In a flurry, other events coalesced at home and abroad. In the USA, “New Yorker” wit and writer, Corey Ford, who moved to Hanover, and adopted the rugby club, found financial support from President Eisenhower’s “People to People” sports program. Back in the UK, Raymond Liesching, in a splendid act of diplomatic negotiation, convinced the RFU to schedule additional games if Dartmouth demonstrated it could play rugby.
And the trip began on December 13, 1958. First match a shutout against Haselmere RFC in Surrey 12-0. Six official games now inked on the card for the remainder of the tour. Dartmouth finished with five wins and two losses, shocking and surprising the English media. The British press penned the result, “The nastiest upset since Bunker Hill.”
Upon returning to New York City, the team received an unusual accolade, an in-the-audience stand up on the “Ed Sullivan” television show.
Archivist Will Gray (’59), said, “They definitely didn’t see us as legitimate rugby players.” Every US rugby club or college side that has traveled out of the country owes a debt of gratitude to this intrepid Dartmouth fifteen. Sixty years ago, they proved just how “legitimate” American rugby could be.