West Potomac Rugby Football Club is a cherished part of the Washington DC rugby football scene. Many locals claim that the team was founded in 1963 as a Division III club playing in the Potomac Rugby Union (although the actual date may be significantly earlier).
As the chronicles, passed down in oral tradition, tell it, West Potomac Rugby Football Club (WPRFC) originated in 1963 when a group of bed-wetting British Naval officers with Cockney accents were enrolled in a year-long course in International Diplomacy at the Johns Hopkins School of International Studies (SAIS is on Massachusetts Ave in N.W. DC, not in Baltimore).
One day while cruising about the provinces, observing the daily habits and activities of the Colonials, they espied a Rugby match between Washington Rugby Club (then comprised of a bunch of bed-wetters with Cockney accents from various British Commonwealth Embassies) and Club de Sudamericano (also, despite the name, comprised of a bunch of bed-wetters with Cockney accents from various British Commonwealth Embassies). After the initial shock of seeing Rugby being played in America, they quickly came to the conclusion: “Bloody Hell! We could beat that lot!”
And so they formed a team, called it SAIS RFC, had one practice, and there being only abut three Rugby clubs in Washington at that time, quickly scheduled matches and DID beat Washington and SUD. And over the next year or so, they beat them again and again. During this period, as a matter of course, they recruited some USMC officers also taking (and no doubt in need of) courses in International Diplomacy and various SAIS students to the team. In due time, the Brits finished their course of study and sailed back to Merry Old England. Almost immediately the wheels began to come off the cart!
In fact this is just the tip of the historical iceberg. What follows is an account of the team’s history and the suprising ways in which it has enriched – and impacted – on local and national events:
WPRFC and the War of 1812
August 24, 1814 is a well known – and oft misunderstood day – in American and rugby history. It is in fact when rugby first began. A group of American citizens proudly defended the abandoned capitol from the approaching British Army.
The Brits – sensing the peril that awaited – kindly asked if there was another option than death and destruction. The Americans offered them the choice of a game called lacrosse played by the Indians or “Smear the Tory” played by the local schoolchildren. If the American’s won the British would have to cross to the Western side of the Potomac and march back to their ships further down the river (hence the team name “West Potomac”).
Thinking it the more harmless of the two the Brits chose the latter. Each side chose their bravest, strongest and fastest men. As usual one team was short a man and had to borrow a player but the history books are vague on the subject.
Many rules had not yet been ironed out – however it was the start of what we call rugby. After the Americans had won the match they took pity upon the Brits and invited them to the local pub. Everyone got along extremely well – and some Americans and British soldiers actually exchanged uniforms! Unfortunately the players in their zeal and celebrating had too much porter and stout. In the drunken fest afterwards many fires were inadverntly set – burning much of Washington, DC.
The Americans realizing that the local citizenry would be quite upset upon their return came up with a legend. A story that the British entered the town unopposed and set fire to the buildings. A local woman of “loose morals” – who had remained behind after her husband had left – even chimed in with stories of drunk men in British uniforms looting and burning buildings. She even went on to claim that she had saved several paintings and the silver from her house right before the British had arrived (when in fact it was the British who saved them after she lit the house on fire).
The story worked wonderfully – and the rugby tradition of blaming everything on the visiting team began. However several of the West Potomac players left town to ensure their safety – arriving in New Orleans just in time for a rematch.
Locally, another game was played on September 13, 1814 at Ft. McHenry. The Americain’s again won the game and celebrated by firing off many fireworks – a tradition which West Potomac celebrates several times a year. These fireworks caused a lot of damage however and the American’s blamed it on a supposed “British Navy bombardment”.
One of the quicker witted among the West Potomac players – a Mr. Francis Scott Key – even claimed it as the source of inspiration for a song he had written called “The Star Spangled Banner”. Quite a few in the crowd – knowing Mr. Key for the drunk that he was – did not believe him. However, when he improvised a catchy little ditty the townspeople believed him.
Nine years later – in 1823 – a British school boy by the name of William Webb Ellis – having heard the story from his father many times – introduced the game to his schoolyard.
West Potomac RFC has been a part of many other historical events which have been passed down from generation to generation in song. These will be covered at a later date.