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The Best Rugby Team Ever

The Best Rugby Team Ever

By Sam Scott ’96

In this 1916 rugby match against Stanford, James Winston, tackled by a Stanford man, passes the ball to Rudy Scholz (far right). Santa Clara won the game 28–5. Photo courtesy SCU Archives
When Rudy Scholz and Santa Clara teammates won Olympic Gold—twice. 

When Camille Grassineau flew across the goal line in the opening game of rugby in Rio, she was making history—and perhaps amends—as the first rugby player to score at an Olympics in nearly a century. The last person to do so, Caesar Mannelli ’22, had been putting the screws to Grassineau’s ancestors in one of the great upsets in Olympic history—the USA’s 17–3 rout of France in the gold medal game 92 years earlier.

Mannelli’s name, of course, doesn’t mean much to most modern ears. But in the early 1920s, he was known as the “patriarch of Santa Clara athletics,” a hulking football captain who also excelled in basketball and baseball before being recruited for the new sport. And he was far from the only Missionite among the unlikely victors.

All told, five Santa Clara ruggers won gold in 1924, none more important than the smallest of them all—the speedy scrum half, Rudy Scholz ’18, LLD ’20 whose quick passes kept the American offense moving. “We played the French off their feet,” he wrote in his diary. “We fought with such fierceness and determination and together, that I don’t think any team could beat us.”

French hungry for revenge

The extent of the upset is hard to grasp now, but one American journalist likened it to a French baseball team going to America to take on the pennant winner. “Their victory and their conduct under fire is the brightest entry that had been scored on all the pages of America’s international sport records.”

True, the Americans, including Scholz and six other Santa Clara players, had won gold in Belgium in 1920, beating the French 8–0. But in the interim, rugby had virtually disappeared in America. Many of the U.S. veterans had barely played in years—and this time they were competing against France in Paris in front of a revenge-hungry crowd of 40,000 that began the game booing the American national anthem and ended it in virtual riot.

“An American photographer, while attempting to take a picture of the American flag at the top of the Olympic pole, was hit by various missiles thrown by the enraged spectators,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported on its front page.

It’s a great David-and-Goliath story that, for SCU fans at least, comes with a curious question: Why was Santa Clara such a factory for rugby talent in the early 20th century? In all, nine Santa Clara players won at least one gold and three won two—more double winners than any other school.

The answer goes back to 1905, when national concerns about the savagery of American football reached a boil. Figures vary, but approximately 20 high school and college players across the country died as a result of game injuries, a ghastly toll that, prorated to account for how many students play now, would be the equivalent of nearly 100 players dying in 2016.

The spate of deaths struck home that November when an 18-year-old student at Santa Clara High School collapsed during a game, dying hours later with a fractured skull. The nearby tragedy brought a swift reaction from the college. President Richard Gleason, S.J., cancelled the forthcoming football game against the University of the Pacific while the faculty moved to do away with the sport altogether, or at least until they could allow students “to enter into it without such fearful danger to life and limb.”

The following year, for similar reasons, Stanford and Cal also dropped football, agreeing on rugby as their collision sport of choice. The “English game” was hardly gentle, but in comparison to the mauling tactics of football of the day, it was indeed less brutal.

Other schools jumped on the rugby bandwagon, including Santa Clara, which began to field a rugby side in 1907. Soon the West Coast, and particularly the Bay Area, was a hotbed of the sport, even as the rest of the country kept its eyes glued to the gridiron.

The Missionites quickly rose in prominence, achieving their greatest glory during the undefeated season of 1916, which was punctuated with a resounding 28–5 victory over Stanford in front of a packed house in San Francisco. Even the Stanford Daily tipped its hat to “probably the best rugby team that has ever been put together in California.”

The bottom, though, would soon fall out, with interruptions related to World War I providing the final straw. By 1919, football was king again around the Bay while rugby was left to languish. Scholz, who had driven Santa Clara’s renowned victory over Stanford before leaving for military training, was now the school’s quarterback.

But rugby’s fans weren’t willing to let go so easily. Momentum built toward the 1920 Olympics. In California, it was the emphatic 1916 victory over Stanford, as much as anything else that resulted in so many former Santa Clara players making the team, says Dave Scholz MBA ’70, Rudy Scholz’s youngest son. Only Stanford accounted for more men on the roster.

More than a star

Rudy Scholz wasn’t just a star player. He was instrumental in helping beat the bushes for scarce funds to get the team to Europe, taking on the title of chairman of the Santa Clara Olympics Games Rugby Track committee.

“For the first time in the history of Santa Clara there is an opportunity to send representatives from here to the Olympic Games,” Rudy Scholz wrote in a fund-raising letter to the city’s chamber of commerce, trying to reach $1,000, Santa Clara’s share of the cost. “[I]t will make Santa Clara known not only through Europe but also throughout the United States.”

In 1924, Scholz would again shoulder a significant portion of the planning and fundraising efforts, serving as secretary of the newly formed Northern California Rugby Association to raise a team to defend the American gold, despite little interest from the American Olympics organizers.

For the rest of his life, rugby would have a hold on his heart. Scholz played competitive rugby until he was 47 and made his final cameo in a game in his 80s.

And while the American gold-medal winning ruggers are now mostly forgotten, Rudy Scholz’s name proudly lives on in the sport. Earlier this year, the Washington Athletic Club of Seattle gave out the inaugural Rudy Scholz Award, recognizing the best college player in the country.

Ironically, a St. Mary’s player won, which prompted Dave Scholz—in his speech at the award ceremony—to quote from an old telegram to his father, then a senior in high school and already an athletic star. “Would you consider going to St Marys if better terms are offered you?” the message read.

Apparently, Scholz wasn’t interested—and Santa Clara’s athletic and Olympic history is all the richer for it.

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