If, like Rob Duncanson, you have been playing rugby for a mere two years, the stadium at Twickenham is intimidating, as befits the world headquarters of the sport. The stands are gaunt and towering, and the eddies of wind they create flutter the banners of the rugby nations of the world—from the French tricolor to the Southern Cross of New Zealand. The grass is a perfection of light-and dark-green bands. For someone like Duncanson, seeing Twickenham for the first time, the only protection against instant intimidation is to repeat, as a kind of mantra, a phrase that you've picked up: Billy Williams' cabbage patch.
It doesn't work for long, of course. It is more than 70 years since Billy bought this piece of ground in southwest London for his club, the Harlequins, and the cabbage-patch slur is untrue—it was an apple orchard. But Billy wouldn't know it now. It holds almost 80,000, compared with the 3,000 he catered for, and deep in its interior it houses the oak-paneled committee room of the Rugby Football Union, hung with oil paintings of long-dead players in knee breeches. It looks, and is, as exclusive as any great London club. "I'd have given an eyetooth to get here," said Duncanson with awe. He paused thoughtfully. "And tomorrow I might have to do just that. Holy Columbo! Just another 24 hours!"
"Twenty-five hours," somebody corrected him. No sense in speeding up the ultimate test, a huge test indeed for the infant U.S.A. Rugby Football Union, which came into being only in 1975. On Saturday afternoon, right there at Twickenham, Duncanson and his colleagues on the U.S. national team—the Eagles—would meet England. Actually, this English side was more than half composed of players who had represented their country in international competition, and the rest were strong contenders for positions on the team that will wear England's colors during the international season, which begins after Christmas.
Although the USARFU is new, rugby has been played in America since before the start of this century. In fact, the U.S. has one sublime score to look back on with pride. That was U.S.A. 17, France 3 for the gold medal at the Paris Olympics of 1924, the last Games at which rugby was played. France was heavily favored, and the contest was played in front of a hostile crowd that spat on the U.S. players, who themselves had been robbed of everything they owned during a training session. Two American spectators were even beaten up and thrown from the stadium onto the pitch.
October 23, 1977
Sadly, that seemed to be the final moment of glory. Football, once banned as an intercollegiate sport by Teddy Roosevelt, reasserted itself in the 1920s, and rugby faded, though it never disappeared entirely, especially in California. But the sport has quietly been growing over the last decade. There are some 30,000 players in the more than 600 U.S. clubs. Significantly, a major part of rugby's appeal is its amateurism, its happy-go-lucky, anti-Establishment nature. And that is fine, of course, if all you are interested in is a healthful afternoon and a beer bash afterward. But that goes nowhere toward reaching international rugby standards, and Eagle Coach Dennis Storer, who teaches phys ed at UCLA, is a little impatient with this view of the game. "One has a choice," he says. "I feel that American rugby should be more intense, more systematic, while holding on to the amateur character of the game, which is close to being unique amongst major sports. A difficult combination."
The assets which the Eagles took to England for their six-match tour seemed impressive. They were explosive runners with the ball. They tackled magnificently. They had, it was rumored, two potentially world-class players: South African-born Mike Halliday from Palmer Junior College in Iowa and a giant of a forward, Bill Fraumann, 6'5" and 224 pounds, who once played college basketball for Michigan. But what they did not have, it was quickly apparent, was very much technical sophistication.
Hilaire Belloc once summed up the English Midlands with two liverish adjectives. "Sodden and unkind," he called them. When the Eagles look back on their tour, they will undoubtedly endorse that verdict.
Until they played at Coventry in a mean, thin drizzle of rain, the Eagles had held their own, or close to it. They had won their first game 15-6 against a Civil Service select side that was less polite than its name implied. In their second match they had by far the better of the game territorially but suffered the narrowest of defeats, 12-11 to Cornwall, one of the most roughhewn of the English county teams. "It was tragic," Storer said. "We totally dominated them. We scored two superb touch-downs, but then Halliday had to go off with a pulled hamstring after the second. The Cornishmen were embarrassed that they had won."
Still, Storer had begun to worry about his club's technical failings, due, simply, to lack of experience in the modern game. In the set pieces of rugby, the scrimmages and the line-outs, which happen when the ball goes out of play over the sidelines, the American forwards were not getting the ball so they could feed their attacking backs. "We've made a strong effort," Storer said, "and we've looked very explosive. But they've murdered us in the technical areas."
Sheer spirit had helped in the first two games, but in the sodden and unkind Midlands, in the industrial city of Coventry—where only the brilliant jewel of the new cathedral, built after fire bombs in 1940 had destroyed the ancient one, stands out from the anonymous shopping centers and the tangle of freeways—the modest euphoria felt by the Eagles was rudely shattered.
The slaughter came in the second half. Coventry fielded four English international players in its attacking back line, and once the Coventry forwards had established mastery over the Eagles, they ran in a procession of touch-downs, five in all. The result was a crushing 33-6 defeat for the Eagles. "We have never had our rears kicked to such an extent," mourned Storer. "The boys are really very low."
That was natural, considering that their next opponent was Gosforth, the current English club champion. Gosforth's magnificent pack of forwards attacked from the beginning and gained so much ball possession that it looked as if there might be a repetition of the Coventry debacle. As the game progressed, however, the ferocious tackling of the Americans brought them back into contention. Not enough to win it, though, because their technical deficiencies were still glaring at times, with dropped passes and lack of speed in the forwards when they had to come up and help a back in trouble. But at the end of the match it was the Eagles who were attacking hard and the 18-12 defeat represented only a single touch-down between the teams.
It was a dour, slogging game, and afterward the London Observer's rugby critic noted, "We shall be able to patronize the Americans in a cousinly way until the end of this tour. But anyone with the faintest knowledge of how much their army learned between Kasserine Pass and the Ardennes can be in no doubt that in five years or so there will be another chapter."
Three days later, at the University Rugby Ground at Cambridge, there was more than a hint of that promise. Within 15 minutes the Eagles were down to Cambridge by 12 points, two touchdowns given away by elementary errors. But once again they fought back. The Eagle forwards had clearly learned some lessons from the Gosforth pack, perhaps the best in England. They won far more possession in the loose play—the rucks and the mauls, they call them in rugby—and their fast-running backs put in four touch-downs, two by Duncanson, a 22-year-old graduate of UCLA, and two by Dennis Jablonski of Santa Monica, Calif. Cambridge grabbed a late touchdown, but the Eagles won 20-18. The university broke out the vintage port for the Americans that night at a Trinity College feast, a gesture well deserved.
And so the Eagles arrived at Twickenham and world headquarters for their final game on Saturday. There was no doubt that they were unlikely to win; the English side was hardly treating this as an exhibition. Every one of the 15 players wearing the white shirt of England was fighting for his place for the coming international season. There would be no question of their easing up, even of gratuitously giving away a consolation score. "Nobody is giving us a chance in hell," Storer said. His plan, the only plan in the circumstances, was to hit England hard with ferocious tackling from the start, hoping to throw the Englishmen off their game. "If we try to play conservatively, we can't win," he said.
For the first time the Stars and Stripes floated over the Twickenham grass, which looked as if it had just returned from a visit to the beauty parlor, and then—after all the tailgate parties outside the stadium had ended—this game of great historic significance began. One bonus for the Eagles was immediately apparent. Not only were Americans from a dozen other U.S. rugby clubs currently touring England cheering for them, a goodly section of the normally nationalistic English crowd was, too. Possibly this was because the natives had read in a London daily of the heroic doings of some of the Eagles, who two nights earlier had rescued women from a London pub that was in flames after a petrol-bomb attack. The story was true except for one detail. It was the Owls, one of the touring sides, that had covered themselves with glory, not the Eagles. But since American rugby players normally are rare birds in England, the mistake was understandable.
For 40 minutes—a game of rugby lasts 80 minutes, divided in two by a brief half-time spell—there seemed a chance that the unorthodox game the Americans played might unsettle England. In the fifth minute they put on a demonic forward rush that took them within 10 yards of the England goal line. William Hare, the English fullback, was felled by a tooth-rattling tackle. Conceivably, it all might have gone according to Storer's plan if Scotty Kelso had made history and put the Eagles into the lead by kicking a penalty-goal attempt awarded for an English infringement after 25 minutes. In rugby, such a goal carries three points. But from 25 yards out, Kelso missed. That failure, critical for the Americans, was compounded when Halliday missed a second, the ball bouncing back off the goalpost. Neither Halliday nor Kelso had kicked well on the Eagles' tour, and to some it was a mystery that the best American kicker, Jablonski, who had played a fine game against Cambridge, had not been selected to play in the match at Twickenham.
Even so, the Eagles held the English scoreless for a full 30 minutes. A measure of their achievement was that the home side, at this stage of the game at least, had to give up any idea of really fast, open play. Instead, the English players were forced into tactical kicking to gain ground, even though their forwards repeatedly won possession of the ball to feed the backs.
But then England succeeded where the Eagles had failed. Hare put a penalty goal over for three points to open the scoring, and two minutes later the Eagles' own fullback, Robbie Bordley, instead of kicking defensively for a touch, mistakenly held onto the ball and was caught in possession near his own line. The English forwards, led by Billy Beaumont, piled onto him—it was a measure of the tactical deficiencies of the Eagles that there was no other American player near enough to support Bordley at the critical time—and from the ensuing ruck the ball was swung out to the English backs, Derek Wyatt ultimately going over for the touch-down. At halftime, England led by 9-3, Halliday having reduced the 9-0 lead by a penalty goal.
After the half came the deluge, and it was Wyatt, the English left wing, who proved most troublesome to the Eagles, scoring four of his side's six touch-downs with his dodging, weaving runs. Even with the score mounting steadily against them, the Eagles never surrendered. In the last six minutes of the game when, as the London Sunday Times observed, "ordinary players would be crying for mercy and a can of beer," the Americans touched down twice. Kelso, originally from Londonderry in Northern Ireland, made the first, historic score, the first crossing of the line at Twickenham by an American national side, and Duncanson, in his second year of rugby, scored the second and, arguably, the most artistic of the eight touch-downs in the game.
So it was 37 points to 11 in England's favor at the end, a daunting score on paper. But this was really the beginning, not the end, of a story. The Eagle captain, Craig Sweeney, said, "If people at home think we have disgraced ourselves by not winning, they fail to appreciate our problems." Those problems mainly involve organizing the game in terms of the enormous geographical scatter of U.S. clubs. But, as the Eagles had said from the beginning, they had come to learn, to add sophistication to their undoubted courage and zest, and surely many of these lessons have now been learned. Others will be in the future if, as Sweeney hopes, strong rugby nations tour the U.S. In less than a decade, perhaps, the Twickenham story may be more like the Ardennes than Kasserine Pass.