1924 U.S. Men’s Olympic Team
The France vs. Romania rugby match was the opening event for the 1924 Paris Olympic Games. France was by far the favorite to take the gold metal, and they easily exerted their superiority over Romania with a win of 61-3. The US then played and beat Romania, 37-0. Reminiscent of the 1920 Olympics, France and the US would again face-off for the gold medal.
On the 18th of May, the atmosphere in Colombes stadium was hostile and unsettled. Hot rainy weather must have only increased the crowd's sour attitude, not to mention making the field and ball slippery for the match. A fence to keep the crowd from the pitch had been doubled in height since the last time the US team had seen the field, a disconcerting alteration that saved them from an all out riot.
For the coin toss, both team captains joined the Welsh referee, Albert Freethy. Slater suggested the game's halves be increased to 45 minutes, instead of the traditional 40 minutes. This was a psychological play to tell the French that his US team was confident in their superior fitness. Despite the French Captain's objection, Freethy ruled to extend the halves.
From the first play, the French crowd was unsportsmanlike. They hissed and booed any progress made by the US, cheered when an American was down or bleeding and their behavior only continued to escalate. It wasn't long before they were throwing debris at US players who approached the perimeter and even beating the few American spectators bloody and unconscious. It ultimately became a riot and by the end of the match, the Americans feared for their lives.
The US team chose to respond on the field. They would play clean and hard. Early in the first half, the American's size advantage allowed them to dominate line-outs. If it weren't for the slippery conditions, the US would have scored very early. Instead they struck when a French player fumbled just yards from their try line, and Linn Farish was there to retrieve it and dive over the line. No conversion was made due to the tricky angle, and the underdogs were ahead early 3-0*.
There was a key difference in the way Frenchmen and Americans played rugby, and that was their style of tackling. The US came from a culture of gridiron football, where hard tackles were commonplace and desirable. Bringing such hard hits to rugby was in direct conflict with the French perspective, who “believed that the art of bringing an opponent down was something to be executed with fitness, a defensive necessity which ought to result in as little pain as possible for both parties. Tooth-rattling tackles were deemed to be against the spirit of the game.”
“Lefty” Rogers, against the French superstar Adolphe Jaureguy, made the first big hit of the game. Jaureguy was seen as untouchable in the French rugby community, and seeing him writhing on the field incensed the crowd and the rest of the French team. After a few minutes, he recovered, but the play took a turn at that point. US player, De Groot described it:
“They turned to downright dirty playing. In the scrum they kicked us while we were down; when they tackled us they added nasty twists and pulls after we were fairly down and rid of the ball. But worst of all, the very thing which their newspapers had ‘roasted' us about before the games they were now guilty of, time and again; and that was use of fists and feet…”
US hooker, John O'Neil, only weighed 156lbs. He was surrounded by giants in the scrum and he relied more on spirit than strength when France's dirty play caused him substantial injuries. Through rough play, his shoulder was dislocated. When he returned a Frenchman stomped on his ankle, and when he still continued, O'Neil took a deliberate kick to the stomach. He had recently undergone an appendectomy, and the kick easily ripped open his fresh scar, leaving a seeping stomach wound. He was vital to the team and, after being quickly bandaged, returned to the pitch. The French crowd's cheers at the sight of his blood only further enraged his fighting spirit.
Showing discipline and tremendous composure, the American team held back from retaliating, but they continued their style of hard tackling. Rogers again took down Jaureguy with a rattling hit, and again he stayed down for a while before returning to the game.
Ten minutes before halftime, Jaureguy was preparing for a fast break. He was known for his speed, and had he managed to reach his full stride, would have likely scored, but Valentine was able to make a diving tackle. Hit with such force, the Frenchman was knocked out and his upper lip was split. Carried off the field in a stretcher, the French superstar did not return for the rest of the game. His team was forced to play with only fourteen men.
At halftime the score was 3-0.
Second half play was initially dominated by the Americans, with nearly all of the action occurring in France's territory. Play was interrupted by a fistfight on the field, and when it resumed, there was a near try by France. A hard US tackle knocked the ball free, allowing Doe to kick it down field. Through heavy pressure, the US gained possession and Jack Patrick made the second try of the match, directly between the posts. The score became 8-0.
There were two more near US tries in quick succession. Both were disallowed, seen as a likely attempt to keep the unruly spectators for exploding into even greater violence. Then, with a forty-yard twisting run, Farrish scored again, making it 11-0.
In what may have been an American-football-like block, a French player dislocated his knee-cap. The French team was down another man, playing with just thirteen. Enraged, some French players chose to favor openly foul play. The US Captain, ‘Babe' Slater, was the target of blatant punches on several occasions. The referee threw the transgressing Frenchmen off the field, but in all three cases, due to Slater's pleas, they were allowed to return. Slater was trying to preserve France's numbers, otherwise they would have had just eleven men on the field.
US defense temporarily cracked, and France scored their only try without converting.
Rogers and Manelli each scored tries for the US, and when the last whistle was blown, the final score was 17-3. The US was again able to overcome the odds and win gold medals.
*Rugby has evolved throughout the years, and in 1924 the scoring system was different than it is today. Three points were awarded for a drop goal, three points for a try and two points.