A diehard rugger relives the glory days of Drew Rugby.
By Hunt Jones ’70
I “transferred” from Syracuse under a black cloud in the fall of 1966, where I had wrestled and played tennis. Don Clarke, a close friend since the late ’40s, had already completed his freshman year at Drew and arranged an interview with Mac Hubbard, the assistant directorof admissions. Hubbard was also the tennis coach. We struck a deal: I could be a non-matriculated student if I would play tennis for him. Upon arrival, Clarke suggested I join the rugby team. I did. That decision would be prophetic.
Pita J. Ala’ilima, who would later become the economic minister of Western Samoa, had begun Drew rugby a couple of years earlier. By the time I joined the club, the player-coach was John Hinchcliff, a graduate student from New Zealand. Using films and his own experience, Hinchcliff taught us the fundamentals of the game and gave us on-field instructions during each match. That fall of ’66, Mike Lescault, a freshman from Connecticut, and I became the only two players with no prior rugby experience to break into Drew’s A side. The fall schedule was shorter than in the spring—maybe six games plus a Sevens-a-Side Tournament at Randall’s Island—and Drew’s sides were fewer, usually just and “A” and “B” as several spring ruggers played soccer in the fall. Spring rugby permitted the roster to swell with excellent athletes from fall soccer, and we often fielded a C team. The weather was nicer in the spring, but we played in any conditions—rain, snow, sleet, whatever. There were no cancellations.
That first season, I had found a home on the team as a Tighthead Prop, a front-row position in a set scrum (“sets,” called by the referee after a minor penalty, consist of the eight forwards, all bent over and interlocked, pushing against the other team’s eight forwards as the ball is rolled into the tunnel between the opposing front rows). Lescault played on the front row—all manner of nefarious engagement with one’s opponent occurs here, often away from the eyes of the referees—with Steve Carnahan, Drew’s future coach.
The game was exhilarating. It had the ferocity of football but without all the play stoppages, set plays and bulky equipment. It was bloody, too. During our second or third game, after a set scrum was breaking, Lescault looked at my left shoulder and arm covered with blood. “You’re bleeding,” he said. I looked at my jersey and felt around and under it. “Not me,” I replied. Then, looking at his head, I remarked, “Your ear is falling off.”
Lescault’s ear, in fact, was flapping on his neck, an opposing player having nearly bitten it off. An injury timeout was called. Lescault ran to the sideline so a student medic could tape his ear back to his head within the allotted two minutes.
Our playing was so intense that few of us felt injuries or, if possible, we played through them. It was not unusual to see teammates on the sidelines with appendages in casts, yet still eager to get back on the pitch.
The Drew teams I played for and captained during the fall ’69 and ’70 seasons were extremely successful for a few reasons. First, aside from the established East Coast clubs, rugby was relatively new at the college level. Hinchcliff’s experience in the game and his ability to teach us its finer points gave us an advantage against collegiate competition.
Second, Drew’s size meant a dearth of athletic choices—mainly soccer, basketball, baseball and tennis. Athletes from high school, prep school, and college transfers who had played contact sports embraced rugby and its bad-boy image. If you were free-spirited, and not afraid to hit or be hit, the game was easy enough to pick up.
Third, rugby provided a social club for Drew’s redheaded stepchild. Post-game parties with opponents were a requirement, all off campus, of course.
Rugby at Drew was a club function, and not endorsed by Alton Sawin Jr., the dean of men (and later dean of student services), or George Davis, the athletic director. We did have some champions, however, among them President Robert Oxnam, who bought our first real rugby jerseys, professor Robert “Chappie” Chapman, who rarely missed a game, and professor John von der Heide, so we felt somewhat safe.
Despite broken noses, cracked ribs, casts and missing teeth, Drew ruggers continued their success against larger and more established universities. Our competition usually included Rutgers, Princeton, Penn, Columbia, Cornell Medical School, Fordham, Fairfield, Villanova, and clubs such as Old Blue, Winged Foot and Old Maroon. We also traveled to weekend tournaments at Penn State and the University ofRichmond,always dressed in our Drew Rugby blazers and ties.
The level of athleticism was kept high, often through transfers. It seemed every season we had a ringer or two. Dwight Davies, a former all-state quarterback from Westfield, came in from Annapolis the year before I did, but there were others who stayed perhaps for just a season or a year from West Point, the Air Force Academy, and midwestern colleges. Others came from the graduate school or theological school. We took a great amount of pride playing for Drew, a university few had heard about, and winning brought respect.
The pinnacle during my four-year experience was the ’69 spring match against Princeton for the vaunted Schaefer Cup, a game we had never won. For that game, we fielded a healthy A side of perhaps the best athletes Drew had ever assembled on a pitch. The game was extremely intense, bloody and exhausting. Near the end, Drew was ahead 3-0. We had a set scrum on Princeton’s 25-meter line near the sideline, which we won. Upon its breaking I turned to follow the ball. Eddie Corcoran, our big center, who had played five or six years already, received a pass and tucked away the ball, a sure sign he was not going to pass it. Corcoran began to run harder, knees high and open arm outstretched to stiff-arm any Tiger in his way. Eddie ran over three of them to score and seal our victory at 10-0.
Equally unforgettable was the Princeton squad’s refusal to turn over the cup. Apparently convinced that they would never need to relinquish the cup, Princeton never brought it to the match. On that Princeton team was a prep school classmate of mine. I don’t recall speaking to him again.
After graduation, I continued to play the game, eventually totaling 25 years on various pitches around the world. My last team, Mystic River, was a special touring side for national and international events where we went undefeated for two years. It was a great way to leave the game.
Drew Rugby was my most memorable experience, though. In corresponding with Harry Litwack and Steve Carnahan this past winter, there was a special spirit and bond between all Drew ruggers, even with those who only played a season.
Steve recognized this after coaching 25 years of three entirely different sports. We werecompetitive, never backed down from a fight—most of the Rutgers games ended early due to melees—and with a constant sprinkling of natural athletes with few outlets, managed to win a great share of our matches. We didn’t see ourselves as anything more than what we were, a group of guys who loved the game and played to win. If this period has become known as Drew’s Golden Age of Rugby, so be it. We’re in our golden years now anyway.
Very heartwarming to read that after a decade absolutely nothing had changed with Princeton’s ruggers. I would have thought, though, that the field would have gotten somewhat crowded with 33 guys milling around, not to mention the constant overload on offense and near-impenetrable defense.
Hunt Jones, a friend litterally since birth (we were born 6 days apart) and I grew up together in Mt. Lakes . I was his best man, he was mine. Hunt and I continued to play after Drew as players for the innagural seasons of the Princeton Athletic Club. The founder of PAC was Tom Pirelli, one of the Captains of the 69 Princeton team. I reminded Tom of the Drew Victory over Princeton in 1969. Tom recalled that his 69 Princeton team won the Ivy League Championship that year. They were also winners of the Cherry Blossom Invitational Tournament in Washington DC and had a winning record in International play. Drew was one of the rare losses for the Tiger team that year. Another member of the 69 Princeton team was Robbie Bordley (All Ivy in Football, class of 70), who went on to play several years for Washington RFC and more importantly Captain of the US Eagle 15s in 1976-78. I had the good fortune to play as a ringer with the Pirelli, Bordley and the Princeton Alumni team at #8 in the Cherry Blossom tournament in 1978. I had the misfortune to play against Bordley’s Washington RFC team for four years as #8 for Sud Americano in the Potomac rugby union. I believe we split the six games I played against Washington RFC. Bordley was a handful, much more fun to play with than against. The point is this, the Princeton team Drew beat was one of the elite teams in the then Eastern rugby Union in 1969. In that context the Drew victory is even more impressive.
Shortly after the Drew win over Army in the spring of my Junior year 1968 I enlisted in Army to fly helicopters (how’s that for irony). I was not there for the win over Princeton and remember getting a letter from Jones telling me that Drew had finally beaten Princeton. It was an emotional moment for me and my heart ached for not being a part of that win with my classmates in the Class of 69.
After my stint in Vietnam I returned to campus 2nd semester 1971 and played throughout 71 and up to graduation in 1972 with my new younger teammates. In all I played every A game in my 9 semesters at Drew mostly at #8. My teammates, before and after my Army service were exceptional, motivated, fearless and fun. We continue to share a bond today. My favorites at wing forward were Mike Lescault and John Peterson, also Veitnam Veterans who are no longer with us. I can still see them in my mind tirelessly chasing down the opposition. I miss them both. It was indeed the Golden Age.
Good article! Here’s another anecdote about Princeton:
We played Princeton at Princeton during the ’79-80 school year. Because it was MCAT or GMAT weekend, we only had enough players for an A side. (Back then we pretty much always had a B side at each match).
More than a few players got lost on the way down to Princeton and we were forced to start the match playing 12 against 15. As players arrived, we’d shout, “Get your boots on and get out here!” We kept adding players and everntually we were playing 17 or 18 against 15 :) Neither the Ref nor the Princeton players noticed, although at some point we did winnow down to the regulation 15.
I don’t recall what the final score was, or who won, even.
I do remember that after the match Princeton told us where the party was going to be — they gave us an address on campus. When we arrived there, it turned out to be one of their ‘eating clubs’ and there was no post-match party scheduled to be there. What gracious hosts!
Fortunately, one of our players, Steve (Loader) Thomson, had grown up in the area and his parents’ house was nearby. And, even better, his parents were on a trip so they wouldn’t be home. We had our post-match party there.