Had rugby thrived in California alone – with a population bigger than Australia and New Zealand combined, and an economy larger than France’s – it could have been the core of a lasting American presence in the 15-man (or maybe even the 13-man) game, much as that state has been the source for US teams in water polo, volleyball and a host of other sports. Robert Messenger notes that in the short time the colleges played rugby, they formed the core of two teams that won Olympic golds in 1920 and '24.
However, a century after Stanford and Cal’s experiment, it can be argued that the outlines of rugby-playing Pacific rim are emerging. Rugby is poised in Japan, while the US and Canada have taken to sevens. The American sevens team (above) has won a leg of the global circuit, in 2015, and the crossover of former football players such as Perry Baker and Carlin Isles hints at the talent they can find.
It’s what makes the rugby counterfactual so compelling – in the same way Jarryd Hayne’s adventure piqued our interest, to consider how their boys would go in our games is fun speculation. It’s easy to envision Solomon Thomas in the middle of the ruck, laying big hits as a marauding back rower. Watch Christian McCaffrey play (pictured right – he too will debut in the NFL this season), and you might be convinced this runner-receiver-returner could immediately slot in as a rugby fullback. Even John Elway could be reimagined as a playmaking half, throwing passes backwards rather than forwards.
Football fans would surely like to believe there’s a single source to oval-ball genius. Ed McCaffrey played with Elway in Denver (but not at Stanford; however, Elway’s father Jack was McCaffrey’s coach). “Physically, he was very blessed – he could play two professional sports,” McCaffrey noted of Elway, who was a top minor league baseball prospect for the New York Yankees. “He was also the most intense competitor. You combine the athletic ability with his competitiveness, and his innate leadership skills ... He was a guy’s guy, had a natural ability to make the guys around him play better.”