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The 1966 documentary, “The Endless Summer,” presented an idyllic narrative of surfing around the world. The moviegoer enjoyed vicariously the sun filled pleasure of surfers delighting in the many, extended days of catching waves.
For the Dartmouth RFC, 1958/1959 became the endless rugby season when two, serendipitous tours doubled the annual total of matches. In the past, the team played a fall and spring season, including a spring break trip to Bermuda, and an away contest in Montreal for a total of 14 or so games.
Instead of the 1958 fall rugger season being capped in late October, Dartmouth embarked on the first USA club or college tour to England in December, playing seven additional games against top B side English fifteens. Returning home with a splendid 5-2 record, their rugby derring-do reached national attention via an article in “Sports Illustrated,” written by Corey Ford, “New Yorker” wit and local club booster who lived in Hanover.
No sooner had the SI article appeared when Dartmouth alumnus, Rudolph Pacht (’35) from Los Angeles contacted club president, Dick Liesching (’59), suggesting a spring break tour to southern California. Pacht promised fund raising from local alumni for air fare and provided contacts among the local area rugby clubs.
Dartmouth arranged a four-match California tour in late March. The retinue consisted of 21 team members, 18 of whom had made the England trip. The composition: 1 Class of 1958, 9 Class of 1959, 8 Class of 1960, 2 Class of 1961, and 1 Class of 1962. John Hessler ’59 served as Captain.
The squad boarded an American Airline jet at Logan Airport (Boston), arriving in Los Angeles on March 19. A bus took the team to the UCLA campus in Westwood where they were assigned beds among the fraternity houses.
The first match was against the Universities Club of Los Angeles, where Dartmouth (known then as the Indians) prevailed 13-0. Of note, the match was played inside the famous Rose Bowl after being booked by the Pasadena Junior Chamber of Commerce.
Dartmouth traveled by train to San Diego for the second contest against San Diego State’s Aztec RFC. The match proceeded inside the Aztec Bowl with a crowd of 2,000 watching the action. Dartmouth won 8-0, recording a second victory. The club toured Tijuana, Mexico, and were feted by a Dartmouth alumnus at his mega-ranch in nearby Chula Vista.
Returning to Los Angeles, the squad prepared for the tour’s “Big Game” against UCLA. The Bruins were members of the PAC 10 conference, notably, a more powerful athletic group than Dartmouth’s Ivy League. Importantly, the PAC 10 had discontinued spring practice in 1959 for its members, so UCLA footballers migrated into the college’s rugby program. (The Bruin eleven went 3-6-1 in the fall, 1958 gridiron season.)
A new, unexpected wrinkle to the match occurred when UCLA stated that the game would be 90-minutes and not two, 40-minute halves. In addition, the Bruins announced they would play with substitutions, a violation of Rugby Football Union rules.
The game began on an unusual play; Dartmouth kicked off, and the UCLA scum half Peter Nicklin, a former South African rugby star and current graduate student, drop kicked a forty-yard attempt that hit the goal posts and bounced back into play.
Dartmouth held their own with the game tied 6-6 at half. Remember the match was played with the old rules and old scoring format. The second half continued with a dual problem affecting the Dartmouth side; waves of fresh UCLA football player substitutes appearing on the pitch, and more damaging, the infamous LA smog rolled in and covered the grounds. At regulation time (80-minues), the score remained 6-6, but in the extra Bruin overtime, UCLA added eight points for the 14-6 victory.
The fourth and final match was against Pomona College of Claremont, offering Dartmouth their first ever night game. The visitors triumphed 11-0, recording their third shutout of the tour.
Will Gray ('59) served as the team's archivist, recording the scores and the social events, including the gracious hospitality from alumni and college hosts.
Bob Phillips (’60), the Royalle Lyme rugby cologne entrepreneur, shared his memories of the tour. “New for us was the Rose Bowl grass pitch. We had never played on such lush grounds back east. Second, in the UCLA locker room was a Bruin athlete with most powerful athletic body we had ever seen. We worried he would be an opponent but breathed a sigh of relief when we recognized it was Rafer Johnson, Olympic Decathlon gold medalist. Finally, the smog was a weather condition we had never experienced, and its smothering presence inhibited our play.”
Dartmouth returned to campus in April. The team recorded a 6-0-1 spring season record (the tie against MIT in the slop). For that endless rugby playing season, Dartmouth sported a 20-3-1 record, losing twice in England and once against UCLA. The club won the Carling Cup, the Eastern Rugby Union Championship, and was voted the third ranked college XV behind Cal and UCLA.
The 24-match season is rightfully remembered as an “Annus Mirabilis” – a Year of Wonder – for the team.
When Bob Phillips funded the electronic scoreboard at the Dartmouth rugby complex in 2010, he named it “The California Tour of 1959.” Today and tomorrow in 2019, the college's rugby players will commemorate that special event, the 60th anniversary of the first eastern college visit to California. And, for the record books, and for Dartmouth rugby history, a fine success.