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A composite image from a game of North American-style rugby football played between McGill and Harvard on Oct. 23, 1874 depicts the first game of the sport played in Canada. In 1874 students at McGill College challenged the Harvard College team to a match of two games to be played in Cambridge, Mass. on May 14 and 15, 1874.William Notman/courtesy McCord Museum and McGill University

Thirty-five years before the first awarding of the Grey Cup, and almost a century before the Super Bowl came into existence – and long before it evolved into one of the most-watched sporting spectacles on the planet – the first formal games of North American-style rugby football were played on a field in suburban Boston.

One hundred and 50 years ago Tuesday, a crowd of roughly 500 people paid 50 cents each to watch the first in a two-day series of games between McGill University and Harvard University, each showcasing their own version of “football.” While Harvard played under its own “Boston rules,” which used a round ball and most closely resembled what we in North America now call soccer, McGill introduced the United States of America to its oval ball and, more importantly, the ability to pick it up and run with it.

As it turned out, McGill didn’t win either of those games in 1874, falling 3-0 on May 14 under Harvard’s rules, before the two teams produced a scoreless tie the next day in a contest played under the McGill rules. A third meeting, at McGill that fall, also went Harvard’s way.

But more than simply wins and losses – and the birth of a rugby rivalry that extends through to the present day – the contests marked a seminal moment for oval-ball games on this continent. In hindsight, Harvard’s Jarvis Field served as a metaphorical petri dish for the evolution of Canadian football, American football, as well as the most traditional of the three sports, rugby.

“Our game all starts out of that,” says Steve Daniel, the official historian for the Canadian Football League. “And it’s this, ‘Hey, this is a good game to play that’s a lot more fun than soccer, a lot more fun than rugby union,’ and that’s because it’s more open and it’s more flexible. Look at how flexible football is now.

“To me, that’s the real importance of that event; that and its encouragement to create rugby football organizations in every province in every major city.”

As Daniel explains, out of those games sprang governing bodies such as the Canadian Football Association and the Canadian Rugby Football Union, as well as football teams in Ottawa and Winnipeg.

“That to me is ultimately the historical relevance for this, it said, ‘Hey, this is a game that that’s worth playing.’ ”

South of the border, the game was well received, with Harvard ultimately embracing the McGill rules and incorporating them the next year in a game against Yale, then persuading a number of other schools to embrace the bedlam.

As famed New York Times sportswriter Red Smith wrote in 1973, “Harvard and McGill crossbred rugby with a form of bloodletting called the Boston Game and produced the collision sport we know today.”

But the 1874 contest also represented a watershed moment for the sport of rugby on this side of the pond. With the Canadian Rugby Football Union – today known as Rugby Canada – not founded until 1884, Canada didn’t officially play its first international test match until 1932.

“Literally it was the first international I guess, for Canadian rugby, McGill playing Harvard,” says Ian Baillie, the current McGill men’s rugby head coach.

Baillie, who has been the head coach at McGill since 2013, says that the games against Harvard are special, and each one helps commemorate that first meeting back in 1874. However, the pandemic interrupted the near-annual meetings, and the alumni base is getting antsy.

Last fall, he says, he was at the Rugby World Cup in France after being invited by some former McGill players who now work in Europe. The burning question they all had though, was when the school would get Harvard back on the schedule.

The answer is this fall when the two schools meet at McGill to commemorate the 150th anniversary of their first meeting.

“We’re really hoping to make an event worthy of 150 years of history,” Baillie says.

The two schools have been playing rugby matches fairly frequently since 1974, the centenary of the first meeting. That’s when the Covo Cup was introduced, the brainchild of the former McGill men’s rugby coach and engineering professor, Peter Covo, who was looking to drum up interest and generate funds for the school’s rugby program, which was fighting to stay afloat at the time. Though he never got to see the fruits of his labour – Covo died the year before – the trophy was awarded in his name and will be competed for once again this fall.

“It was a matter of survival at the time for the rugby program,” says his son, Ken Covo. “And I think that’s what kind of prompted him to come up with the idea, ‘Okay, here’s a way of reminding people that we’re not just a bunch of guys running around on a field.’ There’s a long history here, and in fact, a very critical history in terms of the role that McGill and Harvard played in getting football off the ground in North America.”

Owing to the five-year gap since the last Covo Cup meeting – won by McGill 47-15 – none of the current crop of rugby players at McGill will have participated in the rivalry. But that doesn’t mean that both sides aren’t heavily invested in the shared history between the two schools, with McGill currently owning a 24-14 edge in Covo Cup clashes.

“I don’t think we necessarily feel it in the day to day, but then surrounding the event when the alum come in, and you get talking to them and learning about when they played and seeing how excited they are to see you play then you kind of feel that connection,” says Michael Modafferi, the current McGill rugby manager and a former player who took part in three Covo Cups.

“Playing McGill was always a highlight of the fall season,” says Andrew Pinkerton, a Canadian who captained Harvard rugby back in the early 1990s. “The games are always very, very competitive. And whether we hosted McGill down in Cambridge, or we went up to Montreal, we always enjoyed the competition and the rivalry.”

Perhaps no one is better qualified to discuss the historic impact of the game, and the rivalry between the schools, than Joseph Hanaway. The McGill alumnus, who was part of the school’s 1955 national championship team, actually played on the football team his first two years at the school. “Joe the Toe,” as he became known for his kicking exploits, then moved on to Harvard to teach neuroanatomy, but his influence at McGill is still felt with the creation two years ago of the Hanaway Award, given to the player who best exemplifies gentlemanly qualities, rugby’s version of the NHL’s Lady Byng Trophy.

“Harvard won two out of three,” he says of the 1874 matches. “But again, I don’t think Harvard appreciated what that game was, how important that game was, until the American Ivy League was formed and the various rules were changed about the line of scrimmage and passing the ball.

“Neither side recognized how important it was to both schools until years later.”

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