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Remembering the Days — The British are coming! How the Rugby Club beat the Brits at their own game

Remembering the Days - episode 85

The USC Rugby Club has been on the field for more than 50 years, and the squad's success in its early years included a dramatic match and rematch with British naval personnel in 1973.


Players getting tackled on a grassy athletic field, competing for possession of an oblong leather ball — it probably sounds familiar …

Except that this is not the game that you might think. This is the sound of rugby, not American football, and you might be surprised to learn that rugby has been a popular club sport at the University of South Carolina for more than half of a century.

I’m Chris Horn, your host for Remembering the Days, and today we’re looking back at the origins of the USC Rugby Club. As part of that story we’re going to revisit a match that was played in 1973 between rough-and-tough British sailors and the USC Rugby Club. It sounds like a David and Goliath contest, right?

Well, before we get to that match, let’s get a few preliminaries out of the way like, what is rugby exactly?

archival yearbook image with photos of the rugby team and a story about the win against the british sailors
The story of the USC Rugby Club's win against the British sailors made the 1974 edition of the Garnet and Black yearbook.

John Roberts: “Legend has it that rugby was born out of a soccer game in England when a school boy became frustrated with kicking the ball and decided he was just going to pick it up and run with it, and he ran with it, and a bunch of guys tackled him, and they said, ‘Hey, this could make a pretty cool game.’ And so they built that sport out of rugby. It was wildly popular in the 1800s in England. And then it spread throughout the world as England sort of colonized the world.”

That’s John Roberts, head coach of USC’s Rugby Club, who just summarized the story of William Webb Ellis, an English schoolboy whose rogue tactics on a soccer field helped birth the game of rugby. Rugby gets its name from a British town called Rugby, where the breaking-the-soccer-rules schoolyard incident is said to have taken place in 1823. 

So, rugby grew out of soccer, and American football — the game we’re all familiar with — grew out of rugby.

John Roberts: “College football — the game sort of morphed from rugby. Rugby sort of became college football. They started changing the rules of rugby. They called it football. And then they introduced the forward pass, which you can't have in rugby. Instead of the scrumming, they introduce blocking. Instead of 15 men per side, you know, football was 11 per side or 11 offense and defense. So it made it less expensive for the university to travel and play.”

In spite of the enormous popularity of American football, the game of rugby has persisted in America. A lot of high schools in the Northeast and the Midwest especially continue to field rugby teams, and a lot of colleges and universities, including USC, have rugby clubs. It’s estimated that there are 100,000 rugby players in the United States, half of them playing at the high school or college level.

USC’s Rugby Club began in 1967 when a student named Sandy Frazier got the ball rolling. When he arrived at Carolina as a freshman, he learned there was a rugby team at Fort Jackson, but there was a lot of turnover on that squad. The Vietnam War was on, and rugby-playing soldiers were regularly getting shipped out. So, Sandy decided that if he was going to play rugby in Columbia, he had better start a rugby club at USC. He needed signatures from 20 fellow students who had at least 2.0 GPAs, so Sandy recruited some of his Sigma Epsilon fraternity brothers, many of whom had no idea what rugby even was, and practice soon began.

Within a few short years, USC’s Rugby Club was competing at a very high level. From 1970 to 1973, the club played in two consecutive National Collegiate Rugby Championships and had a 37-home game winning streak. During that three-year run, USC Rugby outscored its opponents by a cumulative tally of 263 to 16.

A big reason for the Rugby Club’s success during that stretch was a player-coach named Jim Wynn, who was a professor in USC’s College of Pharmacy. Wynn had played quite a bit of rugby in Virginia before arriving at USC in 1969, and because it was a club sport, he, as a faculty member, was eligible to play alongside graduate students and, of course, undergraduate students. During practices, Professor Wynn demonstrated the finer points of rugby to the many team members who had not grown up playing the sport.

Fred Holland was earning a Ph.D. in marine science from Carolina in the early 1970s and remembers how the Gamecock Rugby Club honed its skills.

Fred Holland: “People showed up to practices. They were Tuesdays and Thursdays. They started at about five — they ended about eight, nine. They were fairly organized. We got a lot done. I always found that we were well prepared for games. And I never played a game with USC that I didn't expect to win, or at least be very competitive. And it wasn't because we had a specific game plan or strategy, but in fact, we did. The strategy turned out to be something like: If we have the ball, the other team can't score, so let's keep the ball. And that was sort of a thing that Jim Wynn bred into us. And as a group, they were fairly cocky. They were confident. They were proud. And they were very supportive. It really was a team environment.”

Fred says the Rugby Club had some dominant athletes back then, including a couple of former Gamecock football players.

Fred Holland: “Warren Muir played with us, and it took a while to get Warren indoctrinated to rugby and learn that he didn't have a helmet on anymore from playing with USC football, where he was an All American. But once he was indoctrinated, he was kind of like a mini Jim Wynn. He was strong, tackled well, a great disruptor. And when he did get the ball and ran, he ran very hard and set up the backs outside of him very well. We had a guy named Brian Nemeth play with us. He was a tight end with Paul Dietzel's football team, and Brian was just a great athlete.”

So the fledgling USC Rugby Club quickly became a national contender. But a huge challenge presented itself in 1973. A British admiral was looking for an American rugby team that would play against his rugby squad comprised of British navy personnel from the HMS Bulwark, a British aircraft carrier enroute to the Charleston Naval Base for training. The Bulwark had nearly a thousand sailors and officers, most of whom had grown up playing rugby.

Word got back to the admiral that the University of South Carolina Rugby Club was not only located close to Charleston but also was quite good. The admiral had found the competition he was looking for; his rugby crew of British sailors and officers would play host to the Gamecock Rugby Club in late January 1973. 

Rick Lebel was an international studies major back then who played rugby for the garnet and black.  

Rick Lebel: “You know, we started looking into or hearing things and reading about the Bulwark and that they had traveled around the world, the fleet had been around enough to where they were playing Wales, Scotland, teams in the Mediterranean, South Africa, Australia, the Far East. So these guys had done a lot of travel, but most of these English guys had been playing rugby all their life because that was their major sport over there. We thought, ‘OK this is going to be a pretty challenging situation for us.’ But we were training real, real hard and we went down there to play that game on that Sunday.”

Burke Hayes, another USC rugby player, thought that the British players probably didn’t know what they were in for.

Burke Hayes: “I suppose that there was a little bit of difference between this game and others because we always viewed the British as playing a much higher level of rugby, just because that's how it had been. We're newcomers to it, and I think they probably viewed it the same way that here is a university team — they hadn't the vaguest idea who we were. Little did they know that we were one of the top teams in the country. We were big, we were fast, and we were very well coached.

“If you've ever seen a picture of one of our teams during that period, it's a raggedy looking group. I got to tell you, a lot of facial hair, a lot of long hair and just a very athletic but unwashed group. It was very interesting, the contrast between the British team and our team, because we're the unwashed, they're the washed.”

The unwashed USC Rugby Club arrived for the match in Charleston, but one of the Gamecock players named Ron Rounten missed the bus that was taking the team from locker room facilities to the rugby field. Rick LeBel explains what happened.

Rick LeBel: ”He had missed the bus at the changing facility for all the USC players. And he had to get on the other bus where the English guys with all the players that were going to play and all dressed out with cleats on and everything. So he gets on there and somebody started laughing. You know, he's sitting in the front, you know, and he's the only USC guy on the on the bus. And he said somebody must have been telling a joke or something. And I thought to myself, yeah, probably like, you know, here's the lamb surrounded by a bunch of wolves because that was their attitude. And he turned around to look and he said, everybody he looked at that smiled had no teeth. And these guys didn't wear mouthpieces. They were practicing on the deck of an aircraft carrier.”

Wow, rugby practice on the steel deck of an aircraft carrier — those British guys were tough. Hundreds of sailors from the HMS Bulwark crowded around the field, eager to see their compatriots teach the American university boys a lesson.

But once the match began and the ball was in play, it was clear that the USC ruggers were up to the task. Here’s Burke Hayes.

Burke Hayes: “When they brought their team, it was apparent that we were competitive with them, and we just did what we normally do, and we ended up winning the game. There was a great party afterward that included both teams and guests and fans and so forth.”

After all these years, Burke is a little low key about the outcome of the match, so let’s pause for a moment. The final score was 14-12, a huge upset win by the Gamecocks. The British rugby players had gotten beat at their own game ­— but they weren’t done.

Burke Hayes: “And then shortly thereafter, we found out that they wanted a rematch because they couldn't head back to England with this loss. They wanted to make sure they went back with a victory.”

The British players in the first match were very good, but after that shocking defeat, they tried to assemble the best team possible for a rematch.

Burke Hayes: “They had put together what appeared to be their absolute top team, because I think that when we played the first game, it was made up of mostly officers, and the second game, I think was made up of the top players that they had. And I think on board, they probably had somewhere between 700 and 1,000 sailors — probably was a fair amount of talent in that group.”

Georges Lussier didn’t play in the first game but was on the field for the rematch, which was played on the USC campus in Columbia.

Georges Lussier: “We scored early on a couple tries, and I think that kind of deflated their balloon a little bit. So it was a little bit easier to keep the pedal to the metal so to speak.”

Rick LeBel remembers the rematch as being very close and one that one earned further respect from the British.

Rick Lebel: “And these guys were extremely physical. But even their captain commented after the first game and the second game about how much added finesse he saw with our team and skills for our backs and the strength of our pack based on other teams that they had played, including exposure to other teams in this country.”

In the end, the USC Rugby Team came out on top in the rematch, as well, this time by a score of 16-6. They had been challenged by the British navy twice and they met the challenge each time.

A funny thing about rugby is this — and I’ve heard it from lots of rugby players: The matches are very physical. No one is wearing pads or helmets and every player leaves everything they’ve got on the field. But win or lose, once the match is over, all the players from both teams get together for a party.

Georges Lussier says the after-the-game partying is what attracted him to rugby .

Georges Lussier: “I went to a rugby party, and I said, ‘If this is the way they party, I'd like to learn how to play the game.’ And that's how it started.”

The party after the rematch game was held in someone’s backyard in Columbia and included a couple of kegs of beer. Rick LeBel remembers that the British guys had to learn a quick lesson in American college party etiquette.

Rick Lebel: “And I had two kegs placed out, you know, and I went out there and I noticed that the college kids were like, if this was a keg, there'd be four deep college, five deep college kids. Everybody's just waiting to get to the keg, right? Well, the English guys are all politely standing in a single line, trying to one at a time to try to get through five people in front of you that are swarming like bees. So I had to tell them. I said, ‘Look, man, you got to just mingle. You got to get up there and, you know, fight for getting up into the keg. You can't just stand in this line. You'll never get a beer,’ because, you know, English sailors like to drink beer.”

As it turned out, some of the British sailors partied a little too long after they discovered the college bars in Five Points. 

Rick Lebel: “And some of the guys didn't make the bus, the buses back to Charleston. In fact, the military police, our military police and theirs were traveling around campus in police cars from Charleston looking for people because they had 17 AWOLs, and you could go to a bar in Five Points and go in there and look, and there would be a Bulwark hat up on the wall or a pair of pants or a shirt that said Bulwark or a jersey. I don't know what they were trading their clothes for, right. But that used to be, you know, a thing.”

So that’s the story of the early years of USC’s Rugby Club and their success against some of the best rugby players the British navy could muster more than 50 years ago. The former USC players I talked to all have fond memories of that game, but deeper still are the friendships they forged with fellow rugby players. More than one of them told me that many of their best friends to this day were once rugby enthusiasts.

Like most club sports at USC, the Rugby Club has waxed and waned over time, but it’s enjoying a major resurgence these days under head coach John Roberts. If you’re in town, you can watch one of their home matches in the fall or the spring. Who knows, maybe you’ll develop an affinity for rugby, the sport that birthed American football.

That’s all for this episode. Thanks for listening and stay tuned for another installment of Remembering the Days. I’m Chris Horn, forever to thee.