Did you know that Johnston County has a Rugby team? Well, it does. The Bootleggers. Appropriate for this area, no? Established in 2013 the Clayton Rugby Football Club, or the Clayton RFC, is one of the fastest growing club teams in the USA. In fact, the Bootleggers just added a U20 squad (players between 18-22). This adds to a team roster that already includes men’s Division 3 and 4 teams and an Old Boys (35 & over) team.
I spoke to club President Ted Hardy about how far the club has come and about the serious (dare we say professional?) goals they have for the future.
Let’s talk first about the major news coming out of the club in the last few months. You guys have been working on an impressive partnership with the Glasgow Warriors. That’s a professional European rugby team. That’s incredible! There can’t be too many small-town USA club teams that can boast that sort of network?
“Our relationship with the Glasgow Warriors is quite unique. There are a few other relationships between European professional rugby clubs and American clubs, but the American clubs involved are from major markets, field elite squads, and have been around for 30-40 years. The fact that our club is young, just starting to climb the competitive ranks, and from rural North Carolina makes our relationship that much more interesting and special. Our experience with them has been flattering, humbling, and extremely important to our growth. There are cultural, administrative, and marketing structures that we are using right now with the Clayton RFC that are scaled versions of what is being done by Glasgow. We have truly been blessed, but at the same time we went out and worked for it.”
So, what are the logistics of this partnership?
“Technically speaking, we are referring to our agreement as a Developmental Relationship with Nathan Bombrys, whom is the Managing Director of the Glasgow Warriors. Through him we are gaining access to the Warriors, but we do not have a formal agreement in place with the club. We hope to see this relationship continue to grow to the point where we can create a formal partnership with the Warriors down the road. The current relationship in place provides our club quarterly teleconferences with either Nathan or one of his administrative/marketing staff or coaches depending on the topic we're interested in discussing. Nathan has also helped provide administrative support to our club through his mentoring and advice. He has been instrumental in opening multiple doors for our club in Scotland where we have quietly created a strong network of professional contacts and resources. This relationship led to a group of our Board Members making a development trip to Scotland in February of this year which was an amazing experience. During our stay we spent time with the Warriors as well as staff from the Scottish Rugby Union and multiple clubs in Scotland. All of which was facilitated through our relationship with Nathan. There is a keen interest overseas in the development of rugby in the USA and they were incredibly gracious with their time and information. The hospitality we were shown rivaled our very own Southern hospitality.”
Updated: "Our development partnerships in Scotland continue to grow. The information, advice, and guidance we've received has been invaluable. We're currently looking at replicating a festival that one of the clubs we're involved with runs successfully each year. We're also trying to get a couple of younger players placed, short term, with Scottish clubs to help accelerate their development and allow them to experience a different culture. The Clayton RFC is going on tour to Scotland in September of 2019 and we expect to play 2-3 games while we're there."
What does your partnership with clubs abroad, that aren’t professional teams, look like?
“One club that we have aligned with is Ayr RFC. They are one of the top clubs in Scotland and a model organization with teams in every age group from U6 through Premier Adult Men and Women. We are in ongoing talks with them on a variety of topics. Our goal is to set up an exchange program between our clubs where we have yearly player and coach exchanges. This will allow promising players that come through our club, as well as coaches, to experience true immersion in a rugby culture. This will benefit our players and coaches by improving their knowledge and skill set, and will ultimately help our club continue to rise up the ladder in American rugby as they bring that experience back to Clayton. On the flip side, their coaches and players get to experience rugby in a developing rugby country and bring their experience to our club to help us improve. Our club is also heavily involved in working within the community and developing non-rugby events. Ayr is a leader in this area and their expertise in community events is one of the reasons that Nathan opened their doors for us.”
I don’t know much about rugby but it seems like the momentum that Clayton RFC is building is lightyears beyond what I’d except from a rural club just a few years old.
“We have taken an aggressive approach to our club's development. Instead of focusing solely on wins and losses, we have instead placed an emphasis on building the administrative and operational foundation that will be the platform for sustainable success, on and off the field, for many years to come. Having been around rugby for a very long time, I can say that what is happening with our club is very special in American rugby. There aren't many clubs operating at the organizational level we're delivering, certainly not in the Carolinas.”
Updated: "As far as the club goes, the facility project is first and foremost on our "to-do" list. Outside of that, we want to continue to progress with our teams on the pitch. Our 1st XV made the Carolinas Division 3 playoffs for the first time in club history this past season. Our 2nd XV (developmental team) also finished with a winning record for the first time in their history. We're working to add a U23 team to our programs to help post-HS and college players with the transition to Men's rugby. It's been slow progress with that group, so we're trying to find ways to bring more players from that age group to our club. We also launched our youth partnership program with Wilson's Mills. It was an all in-house youth rugby program. We honestly didn't expect more than 25-30 kids to register, but we ended up with almost 50 so we're very excited about the future of that program. We can't wait to have the program out at the Johnston County Rugby Park next year."
So, you’re starting a U20 team. How do you decide when to add teams or program options in the club?
“The U20 team has been in the works for about a year. Jumping from high school to men's rugby is tough physically and mentally. USA Rugby, our governing body, is soon to start pushing U20 as a bridge to help with the transition. We're hoping to get ahead of the curve. We have some really neat ideas for the group that will help those involved and help our club as they develop into men's players. One idea on the table is to take local kids that may have not otherwise gone to college and give them scholarships to JCC so they can get a 2-year degree and play rugby for our U20s while in school. We're also hoping to send some overseas.”
Aside from the growth in teams and participants, what else is on the horizon for the club?
“We have some very exciting prospects on the horizon for our club. At the top of that list is our new rugby facility. We have recently worked out an agreement with the Town of Wilson's Mills. They have a Community Park project that has been in the works for quite some time. The Town is going to put in a playground, bathrooms, parking and some support structures at the park and then provide us space to develop a multi-field complex. We intend to install 3-4 fields at the park. At least two of the fields will be multi-purpose in nature and one will be what we're referring to currently as a ‘Championship Field’. The Championship Field is going to have permanent professional grade rugby goal posts, a manicured playing surface, team sideline shelters, and raised bleacher seating for 500-1000 fans initially. Essentially a mini rugby stadium. Right here in Johnston County... who would have ever thought?”
Updated: "Development on the Johnston County Rugby Park has finally commenced. We broke ground this spring and now have all of our permits in place to kick things into gear. We're currently in the process of installing all of the erosion control measures at the park which we hope to have completed by the end of June. Once that is completed and approved by the State of North Carolina, the grading begins at the park. Our goal is to have the park graded and seeded by August. We plan to have an opening ceremony at the park sometime in November, but don't expect to play any rugby out there until March. We could potentially play out there in the fall, but we'd prefer to let the fields sit for another 4-5 months to allow time for the grass to take root and prosper. The Bootleggers are likely going to play mostly road games this fall, so that we can roll out a full slate of home games in the spring."
This project seems like an excellent opportunity for all involved. We here at the Visitors Bureau of course love it when something brings in tourists (like visiting sports teams and fans). But, this partnership will also be about what the Bootleggers can bring to your community. What’s the ultimate goal in regards to that?
“While we're keeping close tabs on the Championship Field, all of the other fields that we install will be made available to the town and community. This was a win-win for everyone involved. We get much needed land without the expense of purchasing and in return we provide recreational space for the Town. We are also launching a new youth rugby program through the Town of Wilson's Mills next Spring that will be open to kids in Wilson's Mills, Smithfield, and Selma. We have also received permission to construct a full-service clubhouse on the grounds. We expect that to come a few years down the road, but once it is complete it will include banquet space, locker rooms for teams, meeting rooms, a kitchen, and more. We are hoping to team up with the town on that project and allow the facility to be used as a community center as well.”
On the flipside of that, it seems like the ultimate goal of Clayton RFC is to make your home turf an attractive and professional location to play rugby. What could this new facility mean for hosting major rugby events?
Updated: “We're excited to bring the Johnston County Rugby Park online. It is going to be an excellent addition to the community and we expect to draw multiple new rugby events to the area. We've already been contacted by multiple groups that are looking to bring games and/or tournaments to the facility. We're also hoping to bring back the National Small College Region Championship to Johnston County next year. This year's Mid-Atlantic-South Championship was a big success and we look forward to hosting it in the future at the new park. The next year or so is going to be an exciting time as we open up the Johnston County Rugby Park and continue to grow the sport of rugby in Johnston County and North Carolina. We've completed some rough economic impact studies and our facility could be the cornerstone for sports tourism for the county. We also intend to use the facility to host non-rugby community events throughout the year like movie nights, concerts, kids events, and more.”
As a club, do you think your ultimate dream is to be North Carolina’s first professional rugby team?
“The fact that there isn't a major sports team in Johnston County is something we are keeping in mind. Another reason why it is important that we lay down a solid foundation first – administrative, financial, coaching, and facilities. While we may not be professional in the sense that we are paying staff, we can certainly take a professional approach to how we operate our club and provide services and entertainment to the community. We aim to continue to grow and improve our teams, which will improve us as a product worth viewing. Rugby has received such a warm welcome here in Johnston County already. I think there is so much potential for the sport here. We, as a community, have a very interesting opportunity to get on board at the ground level with rugby as it begins to explode across the United States. Johnston County could never get a Major League Baseball team or an NFL franchise, but rugby is on the verge of professionalizing in the USA and there is a very real opportunity to bring it to us.”
An Update on the 2018 CottonTown 7s Tournament
"The CottonTown 7s is just a month away on July 14th. The all day tournament runs from 9am-5pm at East Clayton Community Park. We're expecting it to be bigger than last year. We've brought on The Redneck BBQ Lab as the Official Food Sponsor of this year's event. We also have drinks/snack concessions, a DJ, and rugby merchandise pop up shop from World Rugby Shop to go along with all of our Clayton Rugby and CottonTown 7s merchandise. We have KONA Ice coming out to keep everyone refreshed and we're also working on adding a Kid's Zone with rugby balls, passing targets, and tackling dummies for the children to have fun with.
We have three divisions again this season... Men, Women, and High School Boys. Our Men's Division has almost maxed out already and both the Women's and HS Divisions are half full. We had 30 teams at last year's event and expect to have at least that many this year. We can accommodate 36 teams at max capacity, so we're not far off that mark."
Any last comments?
“I'd be remiss if I didn't take this chance to highlight our many wonderful local partners and sponsors: Deep River Brewing Company, Clayton Chiropractic, Crossfit Clayton, Orthopaedic Specialists of North Carolina, Sheetz, World Rugby Shop, and Tansey Reviews. Without their support, we wouldn't be able to deliver rugby to the community like we do.”
If you’re interested in learning more about the Clayton Rugby Football Club, or maybe becoming a Bootlegger yourself, visit their website - www.claytonrfc.com.