Young Americans by Stephen Cooper

Barely weeks after the first English Premiership rugby game played in New Jersey, USA by Saracens and London Irish, new evidence has emerged from a club’s archives of early American rugby connections in England.

The walls of Rosslyn Park’s clubhouse carry photographs of its many capped players. Most, unsurprisingly, are English; one name however has been unfairly overlooked. Park can now lay claim to a USA international from an era when rugby was making great strides in the land of the free.

Park’s capped American was Herbert Rowell Stolz, here in the 1911-12 XV photo. Born in Hawaii in 1886, he was a graduate of Stanford in California, where he had dug students from the rubble in the 1906 earthquake. Another Rhodes Scholar, he was now studying medicine at Queen’s College, Oxford. ‘Bert’ was an adventurous academic: in a gap year from his studies at Stanford, he almost sank author Jack London’s yacht The Snark off Honolulu, by accidentally opening the seacocks. He later wrote the 1951 educational classic Somatic Development of Adolescent Boys, although there is not thought to be a connection with his Rosslyn Park playing days.

Stolz toured Austria-Hungary with Park in 1912, playing exhibition matches in Prague, Vienna and Budapest. He also won his USA rugby cap against the New Zealand All Blacks in 1913, a decisive defeat by 51-3 in San Francisco that demoralised a proud sporting nation, which had come within ten minutes of defeating Australia in the previous year. This bludgeoning by the Blacks was a major setback to rugby’s development in America, and gridiron Football reasserted its supremacy.

Stolz served as a captain in the US Army Medical Corps, winning an MC during the war, and would assemble the USA Rugby XV in 1919’s Inter-Allied games, a post-war ‘military Olympics’ organised in Paris by the American Army. They competed against France and Romania for the Lou Tsung Tsing silver cup donated by China, but lost 8-3 in the final to the French in a game of excessive violence. Allan Muhr, Philadelphia-born French rugby cap (first to score a try against England) and French Rugby Federation president said it was ‘probably the best anyone could do without a knife or revolver.’

Donald Grant ‘Heff’ Herring was another Rosslyn Park ‘Yank at Oxford’, a Princeton Rhodes scholar at Merton College. This gridiron footballer, wrestling champion and hammer-thrower was the first American to win his rugby Blue at Oxford (a 35-3 victory over Cambridge in 1909). He can be seen seated middle row far left in the 1909-10 XV photograph. Six of his English teammates would later die in the Great War.

HR Stolz

H.R Stolz

Having seen the rugby light, Herring tried in vain to persuade his compatriots, in a letter to the Princetonian, that the ‘English game of rugby be taken into serious consideration with a view to either substituting I for American football or improving the American game with the best features of the English game’. At a time when American College Football was facing a national crisis with coaching corruption and savage brutality causing several deaths on the field, the New York Times commented:

‘Herring who played on two Princeton Varsity football teams… and played on the Oxford rugby team last year and is consequently well qualified to express an opinion, stated that the English game subjected the players to less danger and was at the same time more interesting both to the player and spectator, than the American game.’

During the Great War, Herring was commissioned as 1st Lieutenant in the 94th Aero Squadron that included America’s top ace Eddie Rickenbacker. They flew many missions over enemy lines in fragile Spads, a French-built biplane that was faster than other fighters but less manoeuvrable and more difficult to fly. He survived the war but tragedy later struck his family in 1940, with terrible irony after his 1910 letter. His only son, Donald Jr., followed his father’s footsteps into a starring role on the Princeton football team, but was seriously injured in a game against Brown University and had to have his lower leg amputated.

USA rugby’s swansong was its victory in the 1924 Paris Olympics, another match scarred by violence, this time by the French crowd. As we head for Rio 2016 and rugby’s first Olympic appearance since 1924, the United States are still reigning champions. And Rosslyn Park can number another international cap in its illustrious history.

B1CRV5uA8HS._UX250_519VwYfXTmL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_About the Author – Stephen Cooper is the author of award-winning ‘The Final Whistle: The Great War in Fifteen Players’. His second book, ‘After the Final Whistle: the First Rugby World Cup and the First World War’ is now available.


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1 Response to Young Americans by Stephen Cooper

  1. Larry Freitas says:

    The 1913 fall tour of California, then the only state of the Lower 48 to have rugby played on such a grand scale, by New Zealand, is mentioned as a reason why American football came back into vogue to replace rugby, because by 1918 rugby no longer was the major fall season sport. Much of this had to do with the xenophobia that rose in American society with America entering the war, as rugby, being a foreign sport, even though one played by our Great War allies, was not American, and American football was just that: American! Let’s look at some of the score lines of that tour: New Zealand beat the Olympic Club (of San Francisco) 19-0, Stanford twice, 54 and 56 to 0, Santa Clara College (University) twice, 42 and 33 to 0, Saint Mary’s College by 26 to 0, and the University of California (Berkeley) twice, 38 to 3 and 31 to 0. The so-called test was won by New Zealand 51-3 against a combined San Francisco Bay Area side, as a US side. Whether those scores would have any reason for rugby losing its popularity five years later is, in my opinion, very suspect. I would suggest that the more reliable reason for rugby’s demise has more to do with the fact that the University of California had a dispute with Stanford about playing each other, and in early 1915, Cal decided to switch back to American football, and another nearby school in the East Bay did the same, Saint Mary’s.
    Those two schools left a gap in the schedules of those who continued on with playing rugby for another three seasons. In fact the “Big Game” (the annual fall football game between Cal and Stanford) became, on November 11, 1916, a Stanford v Santa Clara match, won by Santa Clara, the then small Catholic school of some few hundred male students, 28-5, and played before a capacity crowd of 20,000 at Ewing Field in San Francisco, a baseball field. A number of players on either team became squad members of the 1920 American Olympians in Antwerp, and some few went on to represent America in Paris four years later. California’s reputation in rugby was such that even though they had switched to American football earlier than either Stanford or Santa Clara, they had a few representatives as well on either Olympic team.
    One must consider the University of California reverting back to American football, along with Saint Mary’s, as the primary reason that rugby would start to lose popularity and just about disappear as a major sport in California by the time that the Allies were making their last offensive against the Germans in France. In the fall of 1918 very little rugby was played in California, as American football was reinstalled. By 1920 all the schools, and clubs for that matter, that had been playing rugby were playing “gridiron” football, and any rugby would continue as a “club” sport on campuses, as opposed to the “team” sports, such as basketball, baseball, and American football, that get lots of funding from athletic departments. Amateur clubs, such as the Olympic Club, or Eagle Rock of the Los Angeles area, would eventually start playing rugby again, and drop American football, by the late 1950’s.
    Ironically, both the University of California and St. Mary’s now, and in the last decade, have become number one and two in American college rugby, both having the best players and best teams, and excellent programs that other universities throughout America wish to emulate. California has won 26 American national collegiate rugby championships since its inception in 1980, and is considered overall the best rugby school in the nation.

    Liked by 1 person

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