The American Edward Lawrence Turkington was sent off in an international against Romania during the Olympic Games in Paris in May 1924. At that point in rugby history a player had never been sent off in a rugby international involving a member country of the International Rugby Board. That would happen within the year when the New Zealand second row forward Cyril Brownlie was sent off at Twickenham against England in January 1925, but Ed Turkington has the unfortunate distinction of being the first player to be sent off in a competitive match between two individual countries.
From The Vaults
Three countries entered the rugby competition at the 1924 Olympic Games - France, Romania and the United States. No countries from the United Kingdom had entered the competition and France was expected to win the competition easily. They began by defeating Romania handsomely by 59 points to 3 on May 4th at the Stade Colombes in Paris and then waited for the outcome of the match between Romania and the United States a week later to discover which side they would face in the final.
The United States entered the field at Stade Colombes on Sunday May 11th 1924 as the reigning Olympic champions having won the title in 1920 when they beat a France XV in Antwerp. Seven players from that winning squad had returned to Europe to defend their title but they had played no international rugby in the ensuing four years. The squad of 23 players had warmed up for the 1924 Olympic Games by playing three matches during a week in England in April.
USA v Blackheath
They convincingly defeated Devonport Services 25-3 with Turkington playing wing forward in front of a large crowd of 7,000 on April 21st but then gave away too many penalties and lost to Blackheath at the Rectory Field 11-13 on April 23rd. Their final match took place at Twickenham stadium against Harlequins three days later where they faced the great English fly half WJA Davies and six other current or future internationals. On a wet ground, Harlequins led 11-3 at half-time and, although reduced to 14 men due to an injury, scored a further converted try before the United States replied with two tries and a conversion to take the match into its final quarter. A converted try saw the Quins home by 21 points to 11 and the United States team was treated to a sumptuous dinner at the Princes' restaurant in Piccadilly.
And so to Stade Colombes on Sunday May 11th where Ed Turkington was picked to play in the backs for the United States on his first and, as it turned out, only international appearance. Born on January 10th 1899, he had survived the San Francisco earthquake as a six-year old, become the Senior Class President at Lowell High School in 1916-17 and had excelled as a schoolboy athlete. Eschewing university, he chose to go into business and worked as a Grain and Feed salesman for poultry and livestock throughout Northern California.
His athletic prowess for the Olympic Club of San Francisco earned Turkington a place in the trials to pick a rugby team from California to go to the 1924 Olympic Games. A series of trial matches saw him selected primarily as a wing forward but, by the final trial match on March 25th, he had still not been selected for the squad and there were only two places left to be filled. He initially did not make the final cut but fortune favoured him when Charles Tilden, captain of the 1920 United States Olympic team, withdrew due to ill health. Ed's versatility and ability to play in both the backs and forwards won him the final place in the squad and it may have helped that he was also a fluent French speaker.
Whether Turkington played on the wing or at fly half in the match remains unclear, but the athletic United States team were far too strong for Romania. They had scored four tries by half-time and led by 18 points to nil. Four minutes into the second half, the winger Richard Hyland scored the second of his four tries in the match and this was soon followed by a try from second row forward John Patrick who received the final pass for his try from Ed Turkington. The try was converted and the result of the match was now beyond doubt with twenty minutes remaining. What happened a few minutes later was largely forgotten or deliberately ignored in many newspaper reports of the match, but Ed Turkington by his actions entered rugby folklore. He called for a mark and was tackled late by a Romanian player. Turkington retaliated and the referee, the Welshman Charles Leyshon, saw his punch and, despite Turkington's protestations of innocence, sent him off the field.
An American newspaper report following the match was perhaps understandably sympathetic:
"Later in the second half Turkington was put out of the game, accused of roughing up a Romanian. He had signalled for a fair catch and afterward was run into by a Romanian, he explained. In putting out his hand to stop the latter, Turkington came into violent contact with his face. He went off the field accompanied by unjustifiable comments from the stands."
The Los Angeles Times described the incident as "alleged rough stuff in a thick scrimmage" and the Associated Press report stated that "Turkington was put off the field twenty minutes before the whistle for kicking a Romanian player while the latter was down".
USA Olympic Final Team
A punch might have been forgivable but, if he followed it up with a kick when his opponent was on the ground, then the referee would most likely have regarded such retaliation as completely unacceptable. Whatever the provocation, the referee believed that he had to go and this was the final act of Ed Turkington's rugby career. He stayed on with the American team acting as their interpreter and cheered them on to a 17-3 victory in the Olympic Final a week later against a formidable French team backed by a raucous and passionate French crowd who hissed and jeered at the singing of "The Star Spangled Banner".
Turkington returned to California with his Olympic gold medal, married his long-term girlfriend Elaine with whom he had two children, and lived for more than 70 years until he died aged 97 on August 3rd 1996. The last of the United States Olympic rugby squad to pass away, he had lived a remarkable life. Among many other achievements, he had been Police Commissioner for San Francisco during the Second World War and Director of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, but he had already carved a unique niche in the history of the sport he so briefly embraced on those long ago and heady days of the 1920s.
- The Harlequins, 125 Years of Rugby Football - Philip Warner (Breedon Books, Derby 1991)
- Try for the Gold - Mark Ryan (JR Books Ltd, London 2009)
- Pierre Vitalien - Le Rugby aux Jeux Olympiques (Pierre Vitalien 2010)
- Newspapers: L'Auto - Le Matin - Le Miroir des Sports - Sportsman - Times
- World Rugby Museum spreadsheets (Richard Steele)
About the Author
A professional musician and arts administrator, Richard Steele has been on the committee of the World Rugby Museum at Twickenham since 2005 and is the co-author of the RFU's 150th anniversary book England Rugby 150 Years.
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