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Oxford. Cambridge. In the last century, these were gold standard names of Great Britain, as culturally and historically “English” to Americans as Big Ben, Rolls Royce, or 221B Baker Street. To the few rugby communities in America in the 1930’s, these Oxbridge fifteens – playing one another since 1872 - represented the apogee of rugby union play. In 1933, the Cambridge University Vandals Club (cricket and rugby players) decided to tour Canada and take in Chicago’s Century Progress Exhibition. The team contacted the New York RFC, stating it would come to east if $500 could be found for the trip. The New York club conducted an impromptu whip-a-round and raised the money in a week. In early September, at Innisfail Park at the most northern tip of Manhattan, the Vandals played a team called the All American Eastern Stars comprised of ruggers from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and NYRFC, the only clubs then in the east. The visitors prevailed 14-11, not surprisingly, since it boasted three internationals.
Back in the UK, the Vandals extolled the courtesy experienced in New York, and, in 1934, an official Cambridge varsity XV decided to return to America in April to play the three college sides and, again, an All East squad in the finale. But much to the shock of the nascent Eastern Rugby Union founded in 1934, the tour had been arranged by an altruistic sports promotional organization called the Sportsmanship Brotherhood funded by the magazine Literary Digest Rugby Fund. The ERU experienced a conflict of conscience; whether to inform the Rugby Football Union in England that a non rugby group had arranged the Cambridge tour, and thus risk the loss of official RFU sanction and possibly the cancellation of the visit. It decided to make no formal objection but, for all future tours from overseas, the ERU would assume leadership control.
The arrival of the celebrated English university generated some good press in the New York newspapers. It also began the regretful practice of American journalists writing affected columns that accented the “veddy British” nature of the rugby sport. Noted columnist John Kieran offered a NY Times article that headlined “Fifteen Men on a Scrum-Half’s Chest,” as though the Cambridge players were some rogue pirates swinging off ropes and armed with cutlasses. He peppered this piece with references to “Merrie England” and “jolly old England” as well.
The Cambridge team was housed at Columbia University where it practiced daily in front of an interested crowd. The curious Brits also watched a Lions’ football practice and participated in some blocking machines drills. The Sportsmanship Brotherhood offered a dinner at the Racquet and Tennis Club that featured an official welcome from President Franklin Roosevelt that the tour would “…afford an unusually sound basis for mutual understanding and good will.” With five internationals, the Cantabs made short work of the three college sides, defeating Harvard 41-9, Princeton 40-10 (The Tigers were captained by Ed Lee), and Yale 32-5. The finale against an All-Eastern Union fifteen included players from the three colleges, and the NYRFC and French Rugby Club (Manhattan). The final game witnessed Cambridge victorious 25-9, ending the tour with four wins and no defeats, outscoring opponents 136-42.