Compiled by Dan Hickey
In the Beginning
There is a lot of history preceding the formal organization of the Northern California Rugby Union that merits mentioning as a preface.
As far back as 1872 there were Rugby clubs flourishing in the San Francisco Bay Area, composed mainly of former British citizens for whom Rugby was a way of remaining British. One could say that that remains true even today with such a great many players and fans who come from Great Britain, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, France, and other rugby playing countries.Living far from home in a frontier city, these British souls attempted to develop some semblance of the game they knew and loved so well. On November 3, 1877, the freshmen of the University of California at Berkeley challenged the sophomores to a game of "football." There was no time limit to the game, and rules and methods of scoring were not discussed. Since there was no clear-cut winner in this melee, the football was sliced up and shared by the two classes. This kind of disorganized football foolishness continued for four years. At that time, the British Rugby evangelists of San Francisco converted Cal to Rugby-style football. On Dec. 2, l882, the first Cal Rugby team to play an outside opponent lined up a group of Rugby-playing ex-Brits calling themselves the Phoenix Rugby Club of San Francisco. Cal lost to the Phoenix club 7 - 4.
Cal learned much from their first experience with an organized rugby club. Their next opponent was a team made up of the best players from all the Rugby clubs in the Bay Area calling themselves the Allies. The game ended in a tie 7 - 7. Next, Cal nipped the Phoenix club 7 - 6 and humbled the Allies 13 - 0. In 1884, Cal beat the Merions and Wanderers 19 - 0 and 9 - 0 respectively. Cal continued undefeated in Rugby in 1885, and the British knew that they had created a monster.
The monster disappeared from view, however in 1886 when Harvard's Oscar Shafter Howard introduced an East Coast interpretation of Rugby to the Berkeley campus. Devised in New Brunswick, New Jersey on Nov. 6, 1869, when Princeton played Rutgers, this game was what we know today as American gridiron football. The popularity of American football was immediate. In 1892 some 19,000 fans crowded into the old Kezar Stadium in San Francisco to watch the first Big Game between Stanford (managed by Herbert Hoover) and California.
American football was fierce, and as time went on and injuries mounted, the public became alarmed at its brutalities. President Theodore Roosevelt threatened to outlaw it by presidential fiat unless the national rules committee made changes that satisfied the Eastern schools. Beginning with the season of 1906, the high schools and colleges of California dropped American-style football in favor of Rugby. To sell Rugby to students, alumni, and the public, Cal President Benjamin Ide Wheeler arranged for a touring New Zealand team to play British Columbia in Berkeley. New Zealand won 43 - 6 before an enthusiastic crowd of 2,500.
On the whole, it was difficult for fans accustomed to American-style football to accept a game with no blocking; but as time went on, Rugby fanned an intensity and interest in the Bay Area. As many as 26,000 flocked to Rugby's Big Games between Cal and Stanford.
In l910, a combined Universities team from Cal, Stanford, and the University of Nevada (the Wolf-Pack) toured Australia and New Zealand. They compiled a 3-9-2 record playing the top provincial teams in New Zealand. At the end of the tour they beat Rotura 6-3 and Auckland RU by a score of 13 � 3, a truly significant victory since rugby is the major sport in New Zealand. It also marked the first tour ever by a team that could legitimately call itself a Pacific Coast Representative team.
In l913, the New Zealand All-Blacks came to the West Coast, completing a successful European tour winning all thirteen of their games. The All-Blacks finished the tour with three more games on the West Coast, including one game in San Francisco against the California All-Stars played at Balboa Stadium on March 20. Admission was $1.25. The San Francisco Olympic Club and the British Commonwealth Association sponsored the game. Final score was 51-3 for the All-Blacks. Sixty-seven years later, the All-Blacks played the newly formed US Eagles in Los Angeles. The All-Blacks won again but by a score of 53 - 6. During that period of time, an American select side had significantly reduced the All-Black margin of victory by l point.
California high schools, colleges and universities returned to American-style football after the 1914 season. This brought to a close what has been called "one of the strangest and yet most spectacular eras in the history of Pacific Coast Football. One famous writer of the day wrote, "Rugby in California ended in a blaze of glory." There were too many accomplished Rugby players in California, however, to let Rugby get away too far. A bid was forwarded soon after to the US Olympic Committee for acceptance into the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium. The skeptical committee replied, "due to the fact that California is the only state playing Rugby in the US, the Committee will give sanction but no financial aid." The money was raised in San Francisco.
By the time the US Rugby team arrived in Europe, Czechoslovakia and Romania had withdrawn from competition, and France, having won the European championship, was reluctant to play such a rag tag group of inexperienced Californians. Fifty thousand people assembled in Antwerp Stadium to savor the certain American defeat. Eighty minutes later, the shocked onlookers were numbed by an 8 - 0 victory for the United States. The Americans had won the gold medal. The stunned French suggested that the US team tour France, which they did; winning three out of the four matches they played.
Between 1920 and 1924, Rugby virtually disappeared once again as American-style football soared in popularity. But the l924 Olympics ("Chariots of Fire") caused France to challenge the US to defend its title. Once again, the US Olympic Committee granted permission but no funds. Nonetheless, seven players of the 1920 team dusted off their boots, raised $20,000, and found some massive football players who had never even seen a Rugby match, and headed for England-where they were trounced four times in practice sessions. The US team entered the competition when the French had already defeated Scotland. The British, hosting the American team, gave them little hope. Spurred on by the somewhat rude treatment they had been accorded in Paris and by the overwhelming challenge of it all, the American ruggers trained hard. They defeated Romania 37 - 0.
On a rainy 5 May l924, 50,000 fans jammed Colombes Stadium to see France take its revenge. The Americans ran out on the field amid a deafening cacophony of jeers. The game was never in doubt as the US again won the Gold Medal by a score of 17 - 3. One critic suggested that while the Americans "did not have any finesse, their aggressive tackling and superb punting were amazing." Unfortunately, the French fans rioted in the stands after their defeat. This ended Rugby as an Olympic event.
The Rugby heroes returned to the Bay Area without much fanfare. Once again Rugby slid into oblivion as architects designed football stadiums seating up to 100,000.Rugby rebounded, however, in 1932 when US Olympic teammates Ed "Mush" Graff, Lefty Rogers, and a few others incorporated the Northern California Rugby Football Union.
In 1936, the Stanford Rugby team won the Pacific Coast championship and carried on a winning campaign in Canada against the Universities of British Columbia, the Vancouver Rowing Club, and the All Stars from Victoria.
Until the formation of the US Rugby Union in l976, the team that most frequently won the tough Monterey Tournament (the unofficial National Championship) was the mythical national champion. Stanford, under the legendary Pete Kmetovic, won eight of the first thirteen Monterey Tournaments. Cal and Notre Dame also staged some epic battles, which could also have laid claim to a national championship.
Stanford's dominance was due to the type of superb athletes whom Kmetovic was able to attract from the football team. After Kemtovic retired from coaching in 1972, Stanford Rugby took a nosedive and has been struggling as a club sport ever since.
During the l970s, 80s, and early 90s, the Northern California Rugby Union teams won nearly all of the national club and collegiate championships sponsored by the USA Rugby Union. Players from the Northern California Men's Clubs and Universities dominated the Eagles and Grizzlies.
Northern California was the first Local Area Union to have 25 or more high school teams actively engaged in league competition. Women's rugby got an early start in Northern California and continues to produce top-flight club and collegiate teams.
The quality of athletes playing rugby in Northern California and on the West Coast went into decline when Congress passed Title Nine. This forced the colleges and universities to open up sports programs to women on an equal basis with the men or lose federal funds. It also meant that many colleges and universities, in order to comply with Title Nine, began to eliminate minor men's sports programs, which had varsity status. The loss of varsity status for men's rugby on many of the campuses meant the loss of scholarship football players who easily adapted to the physical challenges of rugby. Money for rugby programs was cut off and so were all the other things scholarship footballers received such as medical care, trainers, food tables, etc. Ironically, at that time, we had many outstanding athletes, via the football programs, playing rugby, but coaching and refereeing standards were far behind the player's abilities.
Equality for women in sports has been a wonderful and righteous thing. It has also meant that women too could play rugby and their participation in the sport has been phenomenal. Women's rugby clubs began springing on many college and university campuses across the nation. Women's rugby, ironically, has also led to more public exposure to the game itself and men's rugby has profited greatly by it.
In the rugby heyday of the 1970s and early 80's the Northern California Rugby Union boasted all-star teams composed almost entirely of scholarship football players including many college players who had gone on to participate in professional football and still played rugby in their off-season.
The USA Rugby Union was not founded until 1975, and up until that time, the biggest event of the rugby season was the annual California North-South game, largely dominated by the strong Northern California teams.
A good example of this would be the l974 Northern California RU All-Stars. Every member of the squad was a collegiate football player and/or a professional football player who had played rugby during his collegiate days. Three of the collegiate ruggers learned their rugby in Australia, New Zealand or Great Britain.
In the modern era of rugby, we can look forward to many kinds of national championships, both club and all-star. We have territorial competitions for both men and women. And, Rugby is the only high school sport in the nation to have a national high school champion.
In the late nineties and early years of the new millennium, Rugby in Northern California has seen a vast increase in the number of Polynesian rugby players (Tonga, Samoa, and Fiji). These quality ball players come from countries where Rugby is the national sport. The addition of these players to Northern California Club and all-star competitions has made an enormous impact.
Additionally, the very large number of players coming from the Northern California High Schools, going into both college and club rugby have had an enormous growth impact on the game in Northern California.
The Northern California Representative Side, the Pelicans was also formed in 1974 during the administration of President Pat Vincent, St. Mary's Coach and former New Zealand All-Black. Colors, name, and logo were selected by Dan Hickey, Manager of the NCRFU All-Star team and later, NCRFU & PCRFU President. The name "Pelicans" was selected because the bird was indigenous to the San Francisco Bay Area.
The name Alcatraz is derived from the Spanish "Alcatraces." In 1775, the Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala was the first to sail into what is now known as San Francisco Bay - his expedition mapped the bay, and named one of the three islands, Alcatraces, and over time the name was Anglicized to Alcatraz. While the exact meaning is still debated, Alcatraz is usually defined as meaning "pelican" or "strange bird."* Encyclopedia .com makes reference to Alcatraz, pronounced as "alktraz," as originating from the Spanish word "Alcatraces=pelican."
*Some pundits have suggested (lightheartedly) that this meaning could be applied equally to all those who play referee and administer the sport of rugby.
The Junior Pelicans team was established in l979 and defeated the Southwestern Ontario Union Rep. team in its first game. They later defeated Leamington of New Zealand and lost to Auckland (N.Z.).
The increasing strength and accomplishments of the National Union Teams is fostered by the strength of Local and Territorial Union representative teams. The Northern California RU has been one of the most successful of all the Local Area Unions in many respects. No other local area union has produced as many players for the National Team (the Eagles) as has the Northern California RU.
If you were to take a look at the number of national championships won by Northern California men's and women's teams, you would find that no other local area union in USA Rugby can match the accomplishments of NorCal. Special tribute must go to the University of California ' Berkeley and the Old Blues Rugby Clubs who have won an amazing number of national titles.
The Northern California Rugby Union has had to make many modifications and adjustments in the new era of professional rugby. Whether or not professionalism, in the long run, has helped or hindered the growth of rugby as a sport and increased or decreased the number of participants playing the game is yet to be determined. The author believes that one thing is absolute however, and that is that University of California ' Berkeley will continue to set standard and raise the bar in Collegiate Rugby for many years to come. The growth and development of the game in Northern California owes a great deal to all those contributors, too numerous to put on one page, who have left such a great legacy.