01 Sep 2013

The First Scrum

Fifty years ago, two Scotsmen started an HBS rugby team to help relieve the stress of studies. A look back at one of the School's most storied traditions.
Re: John Incledon (MBA 1965); Jacques Ferrari (MBA 1965); Ian Bund (MBA 1968); Jerry Flannelly (MBA 1966); Paul Chellgren (MBA 1966); Bob Francis (MBA 1968); Mike Rush (MBA 1972)


Edited by Linda Kush

Fifty years ago, two Scotsmen started an HBS rugby team to help relieve the stress of studies. A look back at one of the School's most storied traditions.

When the game of rugby first came to Harvard Business School in 1963, the MBA Program resembled a two-year road race, a relentless marathon of cases, with only Sundays off. Three afternoons a week, a few dozen students from around the world would escape the pressure on the rough-and-tumble rugby pitch, in sharp contrast with the buttoned-down classroom culture. But the two experiences proved symbiotic. As the School's only extramural, competitive sports team, the HBS Rugby Football Club resonated with players and a growing number of fans, if not the administration. In the five decades since, some 1,500 men have played. And it may never have existed had not two Scotsmen, Jim Johnstone and Morris McInnes (both MBA 1965), landed in the same section in the fall of 1963.

Morris McInnes: Jimmy Johnstone and I were in Section G. Being the only Scots in the section, it was only natural that we would get together.

In those days, Harvard Business School was all about endurance and style and meeting deadlines, six days a week, three cases a day. By 6 p.m. on Saturday, your Written Analysis of Cases paper had to go down the chute [at Baker Library]. If it was 6:01, that chute just discarded your work.

I needed an outlet for the extraordinary pressure and tension. I tried basketball and had no talent for that whatsoever. When Jim said we should go out and throw a rugby ball around, I said, "Great!" And so we did, and others came out, and soon we were playing a little pickup game.

Jim Johnstone: It got started, quite simply, by a notice I posted in Kresge dining hall, in September 1963, for a meeting to be held about playing competitive rugby. And something like 35 people turned up. I was expecting we would be lucky to have the 15 to field a team.

It was a real United Nations, right from the beginning. There were Scots, English, French, Canadians, Australians, and the Americans, who made up less than half. The extraordinary enthusiasm of the Americans surprised me. I felt pride in my sport—pride that rugby football was strong enough to attract a group such as that at Harvard Business School.

Bob Brown (MBA 1965): I'd been captain of the University of Michigan football team, but in the spring of my final year I went out and played on Michigan's rugby club team and had a lot of fun. When I got to HBS, I met Jimmy on one of the first days. He was anxious to start a rugby club, so I came out for it.

Johnstone: Very early on, I got a call from Chaffee Hall, the dean of students, a nice guy, very laid-back. He said, "The faculty has heard some stories that you're purporting to start a rugby team at the Business School."

McInnes: Dean Hall was not supportive of our playing rugby, and his reasoning was admirable. He was concerned, knowing it's a fairly physical game, that it might lead to students getting injured, missing classes, and flunking out.

Johnstone: Dean Hall said, "The worry is, isn't this a dangerous sport to be getting our students involved in?" And I said, "Well, you may say so, Mr. Hall, but some people think that coming to Harvard Business School is dangerous."

McInnes: We were never able to convince him that rugby was a good idea at HBS, but it was outside his authoritative control. We just went on and did our thing.

—Harbus, April 24, 1964

Johnstone: The first day of training was chaos. The feeling I had was panic. We had the Scots fighting with the English, the Americans with the Canadians, and the French with everyone. Some of the Americans didn't even know what the hell they were doing. Oh, Lord, it was something. There were so many cultural differences to be ironed out. It was not easy.

Brown: Some of the Americans had a hard time catching on at first. We had accomplished international players like John Incledon (MBA 1965) from Wales, Jacques Ferrari (MBA 1965) from France, plus six or seven other Europeans and Australians. They were frustrated with us dumb Americans because we'd keep violating all the rules.

Johnstone: Somebody's standing in the opposition line, and this 250-pound former American football player goes ramming straight in and knocks him over. Well, you're not allowed to do that in rugby. You can't knock anyone down who doesn't have the ball.

Mike Murphy (MBA 1966): I'd never met anyone like Jimmy before. He was the son of a coal miner and was a scholarship student his whole life—at George Heriot's School, where he learned rugby; at the University of Edinburgh; and then at HBS. Another fellow on the team was John Curry (MBA 1966), an aristocratic Englishman who had gone to Oxford and played with the Oxford Blues. John and I were the props, two guys who stand arm-in-arm with the hooker, the lead player in the scrum, and that was Jimmy. I was struck that these two men from totally different backgrounds in the UK, where social rank was still very important, were here on the rugby pitch in Boston, locking arms to win a game. Johnstone: Our very first game was with MIT, and they were very helpful, as was Fairfield University in Connecticut; we went there several times. And we played the Harvard undergraduates, of course. We loved kicking the hell out of them. Which we did, usually.

Brown: We had a good balance of players who had played the game a lot before. And then we had a lot of guys who were good at drinking and roughhousing and hitting people.

Johnstone: The tradition in rugby is you always go with the opposition to celebrate after the game, have a pint, and chat. Once, after we had lost an away game, a number of our American players decided that they were not going to fraternize. I said to them, "Listen, guys, this is rugby union football. This is what we do. If you don't want to come to the party, go and look for something else to play." They came.

Brown: I'll never forget a tournament we played in New York on Ellis Island. Most of the other teams were made up of guys from Europe or South Africa or New Zealand who were working in New York. After the games, we'd sit on the field talking, and later continued the conversations at parties. These were interesting people with real-world experience I would not have met otherwise, and so rugby had some positives from a career standpoint, too.

—Harbus, May 15, 1964

Johnstone: At the end of the first year, I decided to organize a seven-to-a-side tournament, a kind of abbreviated form of the game. And would you believe it, we won! Our first tournament victory. When I walked up to get that rather pathetic-looking trophy—which probably cost us $5 from the local hack shop—I had the feeling that this venture was going to be a success.

McInnes: People on campus started to notice us. We started to draw a few spectators to our games.

Johnstone: At home games, we usually had 30 to 40 supporters around the pitch, especially our wives and girlfriends, and so we decided to treat our fans to a celebration.

McInnes: We had a huge dance party at the Cambridge Boat Club in the spring that first season, and it got a wee bit rowdy. Sometimes after games, rugby players will take a wee drink, you understand.

Johnstone: Eight or ten local Cambridge boys turned up at the door and said, "This sounds like a good do you're having in there. Can we come in?" Our man on duty said, "Well, I'm sorry, but it's a private function." Next thing, we were all wrestling on the ground.

McInnes: The Cambridge police came to break it up. Jim got highly indignant. He started asking the police for their badge numbers. Well, the police did not take kindly to that. They grabbed him and took him away.

Johnstone: About 20 of the locals and us ended up in jail. Of course we were released very quickly thereafter, and there were no charges.

McInnes: Dean Hall was indignant that the police had mistreated his students. He complained to the police department.

Johnstone: We appreciated Dean Hall's support, but I had to admit that he wasn't entirely off the mark about rugby being a bit dangerous. We had our share of mishaps.

Ian Bund (MBA 1968): I was playing hooker in the middle of the scrum, and [two guys] landed on top of me. I got carted off to the hospital with badly bruised ribs. I needed something to pass the time, so a friend brought over the preparation we had for Monday in our ridiculous statistics course. I actually did some decent preparation, and I think that was the first time I got a respectable grade in it.

Gerald Flannelly (MBA 1966): I'll never forget playing on a field on Randall's Island in New York City. It was covered with crushed glass. You'd hit the ground and come up with gashes all over your leg from the glass.

John Incledon (MBA 1965): Our much-missed Australian friend, the late John Nilsen (MBA 1965), landed on me when we both jumped for a ball. My hand went numb until the end of the game. By then, it was the size of a melon, and it took the Harvard Medical Center two hours with a bowl of crushed ice and water to reduce the swelling enough to diagnose a broken bone and put a cast on my hand. That cast was a nightmare during the second year of our MBA.

Johnstone: The second season was autumn 1964 to spring 1965. Now, that was our first good team of many to come. I think we lost only one game and played about 10. A key reason was that we were able to attract high-caliber American athletes from other sports and turn them into rugby players.

Murphy: The team's performance on the field surprised a lot of people. We were proudly carrying the HBS name in the world of sports.

Paul Chellgren (MBA 1966): Back then, I was a lot smaller than most of the other Americans, but I was fast, and I wasn't afraid of running into people, which was kind of a precedent condition to playing rugby.

Bart Francis (MBA 1968): I was the team captain my second year. Having a chance to organize the team and get all those different people to go in the same direction at the same time was a wonderful learning experience.

Murphy: Playing rugby with its competitive spirit and wonderful social tradition is a fabulous experience, which explains why it has endured. Over these 50 years, a million clubs at HBS have come and gone. But rugby remains.

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1965, Section G
Class of MBA 1966, Section C
Class of MBA 1965, Section G

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