Rugby: How the All Blacks played a part in killing USA’s rugby dreams

The year is 1913 – the Ford Motor Company introduces its first moving assembly line, Adolf Hitler moves from Austria to Germany, the first suspected Smallpox case is reported leading to an epidemic and USA is on the precipice of world rugby domination.

The All Blacks line up against the United States on Sunday in Washington and the wait for USA’s rugby breakout still goes on. But it appears much further away than it did 108 years ago.

The history between the two nations on the rugby field is very one-sided. The All Blacks have previously played the United States at home on two occasions – a 12-try mauling in 2014 and a 13-try thrashing in 1913.

The All Blacks had a good reason to take the 1913 tour very seriously. A year earlier the Americans almost pulled off an upset victory over Australia. The US led the Wallabies with five minutes to play before falling 12-8.

It gave the Americans a huge boost of what would be false confidence.

With rugby growing in popularity, especially in colleges on the west coast, it appeared it was at a sliding doors moment with rival sport American football. Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley switched their focus to rugby in 1906 after gridiron was labelled too violent. Eighteen deaths reported on the field the previous year will get you that sort of reputation.

Following the near-victory over the Wallabies, the San Francisco Chronicle was so impressed that it foretold of American world rugby dominance on the horizon.

“America has arrived on the international map, and it will be looking down upon all the other nations in a few more years, ready to lend a hand as it does in all other forms of athletics.”

Up stepped the 1913 All Blacks to crush those American hopes.

The tour began with a swift 12 games in 40 days against college teams. Playing the likes of Stanford, University of California and University of Southern California, the All Blacks racked up 457 points and conceded just three – a solo try. This led to the one-off match against All-America, which even though it had test status, was made up of the best college players who New Zealand had been previously schooling for the past month and a bit.

The All Blacks opened the scoring through Dick Roberts after four minutes and then the side went on to score another 12 tries.

The San Francisco Post gave an honest assessment of the defeat.

“The Californian players are the best we have developed in seven years of intercollegiate rugby – the very best. And the score against them was 51 to 3. The only conclusion is that we have not yet learned how to play rugby. It is still a foreign game.”

The University of California switched its focus back to American football two years later and then rattled off four consecutive national titles from 1920.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom for American rugby. They famously won the Olympic title in 1920 beating France in the only match of the tournament, and then made it back-to-back golds four years later when Romania joined the Olympic field so at least a bronze medal could be handed out.

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