Rugby League in North America in the 1950s

Match-day programme for Newcastle v American All Stars (1953)

Match-day programme for Newcastle v American All Stars (1953)

Rugby league's North American odyssey  began in September 1928 when, on the way back from their Australasian tour, the British tourists played two exhibition games in Canada. Two sides representing England and Wales played matches in Vancouver and Montreal, with England winning 30-17 and 21-18 respectively, the latter being one of the first league games ever to be played on a Sunday. The fact that touring sides from both hemispheres tended to sail via north or central America at the time meant that it didn’t require much imagination to see the possibilities which could open up for the game on the American continent.

Nor had not escaped the attention of those few rugby league supporters and officials who had been able to visit North America that their game bore more than a passing resemblance to American football, especially at the then more popular college level, where forward passing was relatively uncommon and the main difference between the two games was the blocking of opponents without the ball. Philosophically, the two games shared a focus on tackling, running with the ball and retaining possession, together with a common rejection of such rugby union shibboleths as the ruck, maul and line-out. As Jack Gibson somewhat mischievously pointed out in the 1980s, the two sports were basically the same game but with different rules. 

During the 1932 Lions' tour to Australasia the Australian Board of Control discussed the prospects for expansion into North America and recommended that two representatives from England and Australia go to the U.S. to organise a series of exhibition matches. The Board’s idea was to organise matches in conjunction with college football games, with the league teams playing their first half, followed by the first half of the gridiron game, then for the league match to be completed, followed by the second half of gridiron.

Despite this slightly odd proposal, the two tour managers, Oldham’s  G.F. Hutchins and Warrington’s Bob Anderton, enthusiastically backed Miller’s suggestion and proposed that the  R.F.L. should explore the possibility of establishing the game in the U.S. by organising a series of matches between England and Australia in 'the principal cities from New York to San Francisco' but the Council, probably because the game in England was being battered by the slump of the early 1930s, unanimously turned down the idea. 

These hopes for expansion were more than wishful thinking. Professional American football was something of a sickly adolescent in the 1930s, the N.F.L. only having been established very shakily in 1920, and was geographically confined to a handful of industrial cities in the East and Mid-West. Indeed, it wasn’t until the 1940s and 1950s that either the N.F.L. became established on the West Coast. Isolated in sporting terms from the rest of the country, the establishment of sporting links with Australia was a logical move, especially considering that in terms of distance, Sydney was almost as close to California as New York was. 

Despite the Council’s initial opposition, the fascination with America would not go away. At an R.F.L. meeting in June 1934 Brigadier-General A.C. Critchley, who the previous year had set up London Highfield, suggested that he should bring over a team of American footballers to learn the game: 'while these had never played rugby, he thought they could soon be trained and coached into the game and he would like to see them in action against our teams. He said there was a revulsion against the large number of casualties in the American game and that there might be possibilities for the Rugby League game in America.'

Nothing came of the suggestion, probably because the R.F.L. Council were none too impressed with Critchley’s record with London, which had made a huge loss of £8,000 in their first season and were about to moved North to play in Liverpool. Interest continued however. In 1936, the New South Wales R.L. discussed introducing the game to California with a representative of an American millionaire. The following year the R.F.L. Council agreed to send two teams to the U.S. to play a series of exhibition matches, following an offer from a Mr Ormsby of New York to organise and underwrite a tour, but the promises of finance never materialised.

However, the possibility of a very major breakthrough came in June 1939, when, apparently out of the blue, the R.F.L. received a letter from the secretary of the Californian Rugby Union. In it, he explained that California was considering abandoning union for league and asked 'for the Council’s views on the possibility of terms being arranged'. This was potentially the biggest development in the game since the announcement of the 1907 New Zealand tour to Britain.

Sensing that history could be made, the Council decided to pursue discussions, 'even to the extent of visiting California' noted the minutes of the meeting. The following month another letter arrived from California, this time from an exiled Rochdale Hornets fan, explaining the opportunities which were opening up for rugby league. That year’s annual R.F.L. conference met in a state of confident anticipation, with G.F. Hutchins, now the R.F.L. chairman declaring that he was 'happy at the prospect of America coming into the Rugby League'.

Sadly, it was not to be. Less than two months after the annual conference, World War Two broke out and, as with the 1940 tour of Australasia, which the Council had sanctioned at the same meeting, the Californian adventure was postponed indefinitely. It remains one of rugby league’s great 'what ifs'.

Although the war meant an end to any plans for expansion and even, to a large extent, contact with the rest of the league-playing world, it did not curtail North American interest in the game. In late 1943, and yet again apparently out of the blue, the RFL received a letter from the secretary of the Halifax (Nova Scotia) Rugby Union, announcing that they had “changed over from rugby union to rugby league” and asking for rule books to be sent over. Largely in response to the growing war-time popularity of Canadian football - which having started as rugby union had gradually adopted most of the features of American football - the rugby authorities in Nova Scotia had decided to ditch union and take up the more attractive game.

However, the difficulties of communicating regularly across the North Atlantic in the middle of a submarine war meant that the R.F.L. couldn’t provide any practical assistance and it wasn’t until 1946 that the rugby stronghold of the Maritime Provinces - Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island -  could make the switch as a whole. Nevertheless, the new game was quickly hailed as a success, having, in the word of the Halifax (Nova Scotia) Herald: “speeded up play and eliminated much that was deadly dull under the old Rugby Union code”. 

Despite this positive start, rugby league began to struggle in the 1950s as Canadian football made rapid strides in popularity throughout the country. It was not helped by identifying itself as “English Rugby”: the Canadians had simply changed the rules from union to league and didn’t call the sport rugby league. Indeed, the 1954 Canadian Rugger annual didn’t even mention that the Maritime Provinces played rugby league despite an article declaring 'English Rugby strong in the Maritimes'.

The reality was discovered by R.F.L. secretary Bill Fallowfield when he visited in 1954. He found the game in very poor health and proposed that the Canadians should stop calling the game English Rugby, suggested that there could be touring teams sent over from England and France, and recommended that they should approach the Canadian-born Lord Beaverbrook to become patron. None of these ideas were taken up and, despite rumours of tours to and from Canada in the 1950s, Canadian rugby league withered on the vine, finally dying out in the early 1960s.

However, the dream continued to flicker in the U.S. in the early 1950s. After an exploratory visit to the U.S.A. by New Zealand’s J.E. Knowling in 1952, the French Rugby League invited an American team to take part in the inaugural World Cup competition due to take place in 1954. A team was assembled by American wrestling promoter Mike Dimitro, who had seen rugby league in Australia during his time in the U.S. Navy in World War Two, and arrangements were made with the Australian Board of Control to tour Australia and New Zealand in 1953 in preparation for the tournament. Named the “American All Stars” the 22-strong team of gridiron converts consisted of enthusiastic college footballers plus the Pittsburgh Steelers' starting quarterback Gary Kerkorian playing at stand-off.

Despite never having played the game before, the All Stars performed reasonably well, winning 6 and drawing 2 of their 26 games down under. Al Kirkland, their star player, adapted so well that he was signed by Parramatta and became a first grade regular for them in 1956 before moving to England and playing briefly for Leeds. Vince Jones, the tourists’ vice-captain, later played for Oxford University in the rugby union Varsity match. The Americans, helped by Harry Sunderland, went on to play a five match tour of France at the end of 1953, winning one game but going down to the French national side 31-0 in front of 20,000 spectators at the Parc des Princes in Paris in January 1954.

But not everyone in the game was happy with these developments. The French invitation to the U.S. team had incurred the ire of the curmudgeonly Fallowfield who complained in a letter to France’s Antoine Blain in January 1953 that the Americans’ 'standard may in no way compare with that of our own, in which case it would not be practicable proposition to include the US team. If the team from the US is to be included then there appears to be no reason why a team from Canada should not also be invited.' 

Despite there being 'no reason' not to, he did not invite the Canadians, whose presence at the World Cup may have given the ailing game there a lifeline. Nor did he seek to invite Yugoslavia and Italy who were also playing rugby league at the time. And although it had been proposed that the 1954 Lions play in the U.S. on their return journey, the idea was never followed up.

In January 1954, the Americans were again “slapped in the face”, in Harry Sunderland’s words, by the R.F.L. Council when Sunderland tried to organise a floodlit game for the All Stars at Leigh on their way back home from France, causing Fallowfield to write to Mike Dimitro “pointing out the impracticability of arranging a game at short notice under favourable conditions”. With that, Fallowfield snubbed out the life of the only American team ever to play rugby league up to that time.

In fact, the probable reason for Fallowfield’s hostility to Dimitro’s team was because he was pursuing negotiations with a rival set of Americans, led by Californian gridiron writer B. Ward Nash. Nash wanted to use rugby league primarily as a game which could give America international sporting links by using American footballers to play international rugby league matches in their off-season.

In the absence of any serious soccer, rugby union or cricket in the U.S., and given the obvious parallels between league and gridiron, Nash believed that rugby league was the only team sport which could offer the U.S. serious international competition. Boasting of his strong links with N.F.L. club owners, he told the R.F.L. in 1954: 'large numbers of Americans are sincerely interested in furthering better relations with other countries and they have an idea that more international sports competition can be of great help. … If you are successful the interest could be tremendous, equaling our interest in the Olympic Games, international tennis and golf.' He also dangled the carrot of connections in high places; the vice-president of the U.S.A., a former college football player, was a personal friend who would be pleased to meet with rugby league representatives. His name was Richard M. Nixon.

Although Tricky Dicky fortunately never became involved, Nash set up an organising committee in California in May 1954 to plan for two Australia versus New Zealand games to be played on the way back from the World Cup in November. Despite widespread publicity in the gridiron press, only 1,500 spectators turned out for the match in Long Beach and 4,500 for the Los Angeles Coliseum match.

Hampered by some of the worst fog southern California had seen, Australia won both games easily but the losses amounted to over 6,000 U.S. dollars. Fallowfield returned from the games denouncing Nash as being a useless organiser and suggesting, with considerable chutzpah given his attitude towards Dimitro’s team, that an American side be invited over to tour.

At the August 1955 International Board meeting, it was reported that there were 21 American footballers interested in playing the game (one less than had actually toured with the All Stars, who also had over 40 players at the initial try-outs for their tour), a number of colleges interested in playing the game and possible financial backing from an athletics foundation. But the Board also argued about who should develop the game in America, with the southern hemisphere countries arguing bizarrely that England should take responsibility for the game on the Pacific Coast. 

Despite this failure to follow up the work already done, the rugby league flame continued to flicker on the West Coast throughout the 1950s. By 1957 it appears that many California club and university rugby union teams played 13 a side and had outlawed kicking directly into touch, almost spontaneously developing league rules to counter the stagnation rugby union rules brought into the game. Plans were also developed to send schoolboy teams over from Australia and the indefatigable Nash, obviously not a man to let Bill Fallowfield to deter him, sought the help of young former Qantas employee named Pete Rozelle. Two decades later Rozelle was famous as the N.F.L. Commissioner who turned the gridiron game into the most popular sporting phenomenon in America.

In 1960 Nash’s “North American Rugby Football League”, wrote to the R.F.L. asking to be considered for inclusion in that year’s World Cup. They had arranged for the great Australian forward Ray Stehr to coach them and organised finance through one of President Eisenhower’s cold war international relations funds. Despite this forethought, they received a blank refusal from Fallowfield.

At that, American rugby league slipped into a coma until the late 1970s when Mike Mayer, followed by a further trail of U.S. and Canadian pioneers in the 1980s and 1990s, once again brought rugby league’s North American dream closer to reality.

- - This article was originally written in 2000 for Our Game magazine. For the definite account of American rugby league be sure to read Gavin Willacy's outstanding 2013 book No Helmets Required.