UBC Rugby’s First 80 Years

Main Library concourse 1920sHighlights of Varsity Rugby 1906-1985

Thanks to Fred Hume of UBC Athletics for permission to reprint this article.

The precursor to UBC, McGill University College of B.C., offered classes in Vancouver beginning in 1906/07 and continued through to 1915 at which time the University of British Columbia was established. The first rugby team was formed the College’s first year, 1906/07 and has been a Varsity sport on campus ever since. In fact it was this first year 1906/07 and again in 1908/09, McGill B.C. won the Miller Cup, the latter a 6-5 victory over Vancouver Athletic Club, placing the students as the top rugby team in the city and for the university the first of many such championships.

The 1914/15 McGill College of B.C. team was the first and likely only of our university’s teams to register an undefeated and unscored upon season. It went 8-0 scoring 144 points while allowing zero points against. The team featured a young Art Lord and captain “Dutch” Eckhardt. According to the Annual: “It is a very strange fact that at all the games in which “Dutch” played, there was a full attendance of ladies.”

The team’s next season 1915/16, was the first as newly established UBC and was captained by R.G. Bullard, ably supported by players Harry Letson and Art Lord.

Credibility and spirit were born at UBC on the afternoon of December 25 1920 when the Varsity rugby team, led by coach Art Lord and club president Harry Letson, upset undefeated Stanford 12-0 at Brockton Oval. The small, fledgling UBC was facing a most formidable opponent. Nine members of the Stanford team had played for the Olympic champion U.S. team which had won gold on Sept. 5 1920. The UBC Totem yearbook reported; “the happy crowd wended its way homeward, secure in the knowledge of a University which had won a game, won a spirit and found herself.”

Since its famous victory on Christmas day 1920, UBC rugby was being looked upon in a more favourable light, facilitating in October 1921 the university’s entry for the first time into McKechnie Cup competition. Even though this prestigious trophy had been in competition since March 1896, UBC had either not existed or had not been able to gain approval to challenge for the Cup, emblematic of B.C. rugby supremacy. Led by the play of renowned campus athlete and UBC Hall of Famer, C. C. “Geh” Teman, UBC on January 28, 1922, was declared winner of the 21/22 McKechnie Cup in this its first attempt. This accomplishment had followed an earlier UBC victory of significance, a December 2, 1921 8-0 triumph over archrival Stanford. This latter contest was the first for the newly introduced World Trophy with UBC being the World Trophy’s first winner. This coveted intercollegiate prize had been donated by publisher John Nelson of the Vancouver Daily World. The 80 year old World Cup is exceeded in age only by the 104 year old McKechnie Cup which was presented by Dr. Robert McKechnie, who from 1918 until 1944 was UBC’s Chancellor. The latter trophy is Canada’s second oldest, just three years younger than the Stanley Cup.

January 1924 saw the first of the UBC “wonder teams” win a third consecutive McKechnie Cup. The undefeated Blue & Gold were led by Ternan, Harry Warren and “Buck” Buchanan. Rugby was the sport on campus at this time, a time when both the campus and students were commencing their transition from the Fairview area to our present Point Grey site.

On February 2, 1927, UBC played the powerful New Zealand Maoris, Varsity’s first game ever against a touring side from overseas, with UBC’s 12-3 loss to these international “stars” considered a morale booster for UBC rugby. The Maoris on this tour had defeated three other strong B.C. teams by a combined 117-12 score. 1210 out of the student population of 1400 showed up at Brockton Oval for the UBC-Maori game and together with 3000 additional rugby fans witnessed an inspiring student performance led by team captain Bert Tupper. This successful UBC rugby season was concluded with an 11-0 McKechnie Cup victory followed by a spontaneous and enthusiastic downtown parade.

The campus mourned, in September 1935, the death of popular UBC student, track athlete and rugby captain, Bobby Gaul. Bobby’s UBC rugby teammates Ken Mercer and Howie Cleveland quickly led the charge to create an award — the Bobby Gaul Award — to commemorate the qualities of leadership and sportsmanship possessed by this late 24 year old, who for decades would be fondly remembered by his contemporaries.

The 1936/37 “Wonderbirds” coached by A. G. Dobbie proved to be one of the strongest UBC rugby sides ever assembled. The 11-0-1 team featured three future UBC Hall of Famers; captain Dave Carey, Howie McPhee and Jim Harmer. These were the glory days for athletics on campus under the direction of Maury Van Vliet which were punctuated in October 1937 with the opening of UBC’s first Varsity Stadium.

The November 11, 1937 McKechnie Cup game at Brockton saw the establishment of what was understood to be a new world rugby record. ‘Birds rugby star Howie McPhee, who was on Canada’s 1936 Olympic sprint team and who was noted for his long runs, started from behind his own goal line and ran 102 yards through the entire Vancouver Reps team to score a try. Reminiscences of this run can be heard to this day.

During the war years Varsity sports including rugby were scaled down considerably due to the military training programs on campus. The Miller Cup, McKechnie Cup and World Cup competitions for UBC were out of the question.

On October 25, 1941 a plaque commemorating Howie McPhee was unveiled at UBC’s Varsity Stadium. McPhee, UBC rugby and track star, died the previous November, just a few months after his graduation. Since then, the prestigious Howie McPhee Trophy has honoured annually Vancouver’s outstanding and most sportsmanlike rugby player.

During the late 1940s UBC rugby teams, augmented with several returning servicemen, were regaining prominence winning both the McKechnie and World Cups in ’47 and ’48. In fact, between 1945 and 1950 UBC won six straight McKechnie Cups. Doug Reid, Don Nesbitt, Bud Spiers, Marshall Smith and Les Hempsall were among the team’s stars at this time with future B.C. Lion Reid being honoured as UBC’s 1947/48 “Sportsman of the Year.” It was also at this time the famed Vancouver Kats rugby club was formed on campus by ex-Kitsilano students and T-Bird players, Allan McEachern and Bill Sainas.

The 1953 World Cup contest with “the best in the U.S.,” California-Berkeley, was one of the most exciting ever. UBC won the four game series 27-26 before campus crowds of up to 5000 and were led by the kicking of Bob Morford and the play of George Puil, Ross Wright, John Newton, Donn Spence and captain Danny Oliver. California featured two future NFL’ers, Matt Hazeltine and Paul Larson, future CFL’er Ray Willsey and future UBC coach, Max Howell.

1950s Thunderbird rugby, under the direction of coaches Albert Laithwaite and Max Howell, featured one of UBC’s best ever rugby players and all-around athletes, Ted Hunt. While on campus Hunt not only starred at rugby but also as an outstanding member of the ‘Birds ski team, participating in the World Championships, a member of UBC’s water polo team and an intramural boxing and swimming champion. Off campus, the 1957 grad who later attained his Masters degree, played for the Vancouver Carlings lacrosse team and was the 1958 rookie of the year with the B.C. Lions. It was also this decade and the next in which British Columbia rugby verified its supremacy in Canada with lopsided Canadian championship victories. B.C.’s dominance at this time had forced these championship matches to be temporarily discontinued.

1964/65 was the year rugby great Buzz Moore joined UBC’s Athletic Department. It was also this year he was coaching a B.C. Rep team as well as the Vancouver Reps, and on March 13, 1965, Buzz took his Vancouver team to face UBC and its first year coach Brian Wightman, to what would be the final McKechnie Cup game staged at UBC’s Varsity Stadium. Despite UBC stars such as Gary Rowles, Chuck Plester and Dick Hayes, Buzz’s Rep team prevailed.

Thunderbird Stadium was opened on October 7, 1967 with the first game a rugby game, UBC facing the B.C. Reps. The following March the UBC lads were winners of “The Boot” in its inaugural contest with SFU. First year coach Donn Spence had guided the ‘Birds to an 18-6 victory with players Don Crompton and Dave Austin leading the way.

The 1970/71 season saw the beginning of some of the best rugby ever played at UBC. This particular year’s team under coach Donn Spence won 21 of 22 games including a World Cup victory over previously undefeated UCLA and according to the media was “the finest team in Canada if not all of North America.” This team together with the 1974/75 team which went 20-2, won both the World Cup and the Canada West Championship and was declared the Sport B.C. Team of the Year, highlighted a glorious time for athletics at UBC. Led by players such as Spence McTavish, Barry Legh, Eric McAvity, Bob Jackson, Rod Holloway, Ro Hindson and a host of others, the extent of UBC’s rugby strength at this time can be noted by its March 15, 1975, 103-0 victory over the Washington Huskies.

By March 1977, the powerful ‘Birds had won a fourth consecutive World Cup, their 18th overall, their sixth consecutive Pacific Northwest Intercollegiate title and fifth consecutive Canada West Championship. The emergence of inordinate talent complimented by coach Spence’s innovative, wide-open style contributed to this success.

1977/78 saw UBC’s David Whyte join other T-Bird legendary “point scoring stars” Doug Reid, Bob Morford and Spence McTavish, as he matched this exclusive group by averaging ten points per game this season. Whyte’s father, Bill, had won a Bobby Gaul Award as a 1950’s UBC rugby and baseball star while his mother Eleanor was an outstanding UBC athlete and Olympian.

The Donn Spence era at UBC, after 17 vintage years, ended with his untimely passing in the spring of 1984 and with this the torch was passed to Barry Legh and ultimately Spence McTavish, to coach this storied UBC “institution.”

Of the 70 recipients of UBC’s prestigious Bobby Gaul Award, 15 of them (as of 2000) have been athletes whose prime Varsity sport was rugby. They are:

  • 1938 Dave Carey
  • 1940 Howie McPhee
  • 1945 Jack McKercher
  • 1947 John Wheeler
  • 1949 Bud Spiers
  • 1950 Les Hempsall
  • 1955 Bill Whyte
  • 1957 Ted Hunt
  • 1963 Ray Wickland
  • 1965 Dick Hayes
  • 1973 Spence McTavish
  • 1977 Preston Wiley
  • 1981 Robin Russell
  • 1988 Roy Radu
  • 1991 Jim Yaganegi

Those from rugby in the UBC Sports Hall of Fame:

  • “Geh” Ternan
  • Doug Reid
  • Harry Warren *
  • Jim Harmer
  • Bobby Gaul
  • Ted Hunt *
  • Dave Carey
  • Art Lord
  • Basil Robinson
  • Buzz Moore *
  • George Puil
  • Doug Clement *
  • John Newton
  • Donn Spence
  • Howie McPhee
  • 1970/71 rugby team

* Also inducted into the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame

UBC Rugby Rhodes Scholars:

  • 1926 Harry Warren
  • 1928 Jimmy Sinclair
  • 1938 Dave Carey
  • 1940 Basil Robinson
  • 1965 Andrew Spray

— Fred Hume
UBC Athletics Historian