The winning Olympic team from 1924.

The winning Olympic team from 1924.

The United States has a long tradition of Rugby. Primitive forms of Rugby – which some might call a redundancy – were played in the United States as far back as 1840. It became particularly popular in the Ivy League schools. It would eventually be overtaken in popularity by the American derivation, American football – known simply as Gridiron in New Zealand.

The game of Rugby remained in the shadow of American football, but did not fade away alltogether, thriving at the college level. The United States played test matches, in America, against Australia in 1908 and 1909. In 1910, more than a hundred years ago, a team of U.S. collegians toured Australia and New Zealand and actually beat the Auckland R.U.

This perhaps caused the All Blacks to take their rugby-playing brethren across the Pacific a little more seriously. Just before the First World War, they came to the United States and, as we say, put a lickin’ on the U.S. team, thrashing them 53-3. Lessons were learned, apparently, and the U.S. team reorganized and ended up winning the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp.

In 1924, the last time 15-man Rugby was included in the Olympics, the U.S. again participated, this time in France. Shocking many aficionados of the game, the U.S. made it to the final, where they faced the host country in front of 50,000 spectators. The U.S. beat the favorites, 17-3 and successfully defended their Gold medal. In fact, as Rugby has since faded from Olympic competition (7-man version will be included in the 2016 Olympics), the U.S. can rightly call itself the defending Olympic rugby champions – two-time, at that.

And you can watch amazing footage from the 1924 game here:

Not all of the U.S. highlight reel is in black and white, which wouldn’t be a good thing. Still, until 15-man Rugby is restored to the Olympics, the Eagles will continue to be the defending champions. The first Rugby World Cup was held in 1987 and co-hosted by New Zealand and Australia. The U.S. was invited to participate and won their first game, 21-18, against Japan.

A good start that, unfortunately, didn’t last. They didn’t win another game until the 2003 World Cup in Wales, again beating Japan. But hope and optimism is high for RWC 2011, especially as the U.S. now has more than a dozen professional players around the world. Some of that optimism is reflected in “A Giant Awakens,” a 60 minute HD sports documentary that explores 135 years of rugby in America. Watch the trailer here:

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