Ninety-six years ago today, on 18 May, 1924, 15 Americans emerged into the Stade Olympique to take on hosts France in the final of the men’s rugby union tournament at the Paris Games.
The USA were defending champions having won gold in Antwerp four years earlier, and would be inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame in 2012. But on that day a team comprised almost exclusively of Californian students were not considered favourites.
Indeed, the task facing the Americans in the Parisian suburb of Colombes was laid bare by captain Colby ‘Babe’ Slater when he wrote home to his mother during the Olympics.
“[France] have a very strong team and I frankly believe our chances of beating them are slim,” he confided. “Although we are sure going to let them know they have been in a battle.”
Slater drafted his correspondence having watched the hosts breeze past the third team in the competition, Romania on 4 May, scoring 14 tries to chalk up a 59-3 victory.
A week later Slater would lead the USA to an eight-try 37-0 defeat of the Romanians to set up a gold-medal match against the French but that result did little to instil belief they could retain their title.
Only seven members of the 22-man squad that beat France in Antwerp were part of the 30-player party that departed California for Europe in 1924.
According to USA forward Dudley de Groot, none of the travelling squad had played rugby since the previous Olympics, while eight had never previously picked up an oval ball.
The first stop of the squad’s tour of Europe had been in England (main photo), where they hoped to play warm-up matches against good opposition.
In his letter, Slater assures his mother that the trip is a “considerable improvement” on the one that took them to Belgium four years previously but matters on the pitch had not gone as swimmingly.
“We played in England first at the close of their season and they had lost interest in the game and besides our games were poorly advertised,” he added.
“At the final game there was a soccer match going on that same time at Wembley, which drew about 100,000 people.”
Newcastle United beat Aston Villa 2-0 in the final of the 1924 FA Cup, only the second to be played at the shiny, new Wembley Stadium, on 26 April.
But the Americans had more pressing concerns as they boarded the train from London to Paris ahead of the Olympics — had the squad bitten off more than they could chew?
“Certainly any group of Americans had a great deal of nerve to travel some 6,000 miles to play the greatest English teams at a game which in every sense of the word is English,” De Groot explained.
“But how much greater (or foolish) that nerve, when it is considered that that American team had never played a game as a unit. Nor had any of the members of the team played rugby for four years, while eight of the team had never played the game in their lives!
“And in spite of our confidence in ourselves we often wondered whether we had not undertaken something a little bit bigger than we could handle.”
'Fifteen magnificent American athletes'
Victory against Romania would surely have lifted spirits among the American squad but they also knew they would face a bigger challenge — as well as an inhospitable crowd — in the final.
Coach Charles Austin, one of the finest pre-War American players, selected five of the seven Antwerp 1920 gold medallists in his starting XV for the showpiece match against France.
One of those, Jack Patrick scored one of the USA’s five tries as the athletic students from California stunned the hosts to complete a 17-3 win and claim back-to-back Olympic titles.
“By 17 to 3, the Californians have superabundantly proved their mastership, not, we must truly say, by a superior quality of their game,” Andre Glarner wrote in The Excelsior. “But by a tenacious ardour, an impeccable handling of the ball, by an exceptional physical condition and by an inexhaustible power of breath.”
Supporters at the Stade Olympique had “scandalously whistled, booed and hollered when they should have applauded and admired,” according to rugby correspondent RW Magnanon.
“Fifteen magnificent American athletes practiced a very correct and rapid rugby and on Sunday they cleanly defeated the French rugby team,” he wrote in Le Mirroir des Sports.
“They did it with as much neatness as loyalty, playing hard but without meanness, only using, as was their right and I would say their duty too in an Olympic final, the weight of all extraordinary athletic qualities to which it was allied a desire to win and the qualities of resistance and strength, as well as methodical and serious training.”
The USA teams that won Olympic gold in 1920 and 1924 were inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame in 2012 as a mark of the feat achieved by both squads.
In 1924, USA team manager Samuel Goodman had warned that “this is probably the last rugby team America will ever send to Olympics competition” because the game had not taken off outside of California.
Fortunately, Goodman has been proved wrong. When rugby — in the form of sevens — returned to the Olympic programme 92 years later at Rio 2016, the USA fielded teams in both the men’s and women’s events, and will do so again in Tokyo next year.
“Collegiate athletics are the root of American sport and the ties between 1924 and today are now complete with rugby’s re-inclusion in the Olympic Games,” former Eagle Dan Lyle said in 2012.