New home for a growing sport

03/17/2014 11:29 AM

02/15/2015 10:42 AM

The fastest-growing team sport in the United States has found a new home in Clayton, one of the fastest-growing towns in one of North Carolina's fastest-growing counties.

The Clayton Copperheads youth rugby football club, in its third year of existence, has found its new permanent home this spring at East Clayton Community Park and the fit seems perfect.

The Copperheads played host to the first ever known rugby tournament held in Johnston County on March 9 with teams from Chapel Hill, Fayetteville, Greensboro and North Raleigh competing against one another.

The Copperheads, who played their home matches the first two seasons at the Raleigh Rugby Football Club home field in Raleigh, moved home to Clayton this spring after the opening of East Clayton Community Park the previous fall.

“This facility is really cool,” said Pat Cunningham, one of the club’s main organizers. “All the coaches say to me, ‘This is the coolest. How did you score this?’

“(Clayton) Parks and Recreation has been really cool about it. They’ve let me come out here and mark the fields myself and set it up the way we want it.”

Cunningham, along with Kenny Federico and Jason Niemiller, started the club three years ago with eight of the 14 initial players coming from their three families.

The Copperheads now field teams in five different age groups ranging from a U8 division up to U16 with approximately 70 children involved with the club, which participates in the NC Youth Rugby Union.

“The numbers have doubled every year,” said Cunningham. “With it being in the Olympics, I think we’re really going to start seeing a lot more growth in this sport.”

In 2009, the International Olympic Committee announced that Rugby Sevens, a variation of rugby, would be included in the 2016 and 2020 Olympic games.

Little over four years after that announcement, an estimated 1.13 million Americans are involved in the sport.

The game contains elements of different sports and one only needs a pair of cleats and a mouth guard to get started, helping to make the transition easy for children and parents new to the game.

“Rugby has really exploded in the last five, 10 years in the USA,” said Ted Hardy, U12 coach for the Copperheads. “It’s a real easy game that the kids seem to pick up easily; it’s a real instinctive game.”

The younger age divisions mirror the seven-on-seven variation adopted for the Olympics with the main difference being that U10 and under play touch rugby with no tackling involved as a way to introduce the sport.

Rugby includes no blocking, no forward passes and, perhaps most importantly, no stoppages to regroup and set up plays.

“When people first start looking at it, it seems very chaotic but once you start to understand the flow of it, it’s a very beautiful, very free-flowing game,” Hardy added.

The tournament focused on improvement with no true scores kept. The focus was on improvement and playing experience. Once the season progresses, the Copperheads will concentrate on defending their Carolina Cup state tournament U13 championship and trying to equal their run in 2012 when they swept the championships from U11 to U13.

Cunningham sees rugby as an equal opportunity sport. Players start the game in assigned positions but then must react to the action and all perform the same duties regardless of where they lined up initially.

“Every kid on the field gets to play linebacker and running back,” noted Cunningham. “Everybody gets to carry the ball, everybody gets the chance to tackle and everybody gets an opportunity.”

“I really enjoy it and am glad I get to share it with the kids and just help it keep growing.”

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