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County tourism adds rugby to unique sports list

Randy Lefko
Sports Editor
Posted 6/27/24

FLEMING ISLAND - With a handful of Clay County ex-football players on their roster, the Jacksonville Wolverine boys Under-19 rugby team showed off some of the fast-moving action of rugby with a …

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County tourism adds rugby to unique sports list


FLEMING ISLAND - With a handful of Clay County ex-football players on their roster, the Jacksonville Wolverine boys Under-19 rugby team showed off some of the fast-moving action of rugby with a two-game series at Thunderbolt Park in Fleming Island.

"We try to be creative and invite sports that are kind of non-traditional into the county to showcase the resources that we have here," said Clay County Director of Tourism Kimberly Morgan, who has orchestrated such events as professional motorized surfing in Keystone Heights, the USA Cycling national qualifying weekend (Criterium, Time Trial and Road Race) that incorporated such sites as Camp Blanding (Time Trial), Thrasher Horne Civic Center (Criterium) and Penney Farms (Road Race) in recent outings, plus a Florida Cyclocross championship race series in Ronnie Van Zandt Memorial Park in Lake Asbury. "Rugby was just sort of a no-brainer with the huge football presence in Clay County and this north Florida area and the Wolverines were looking for a permanent home field spot to play."
The two-game series played with the Wolverines, which is also an Under-16 team, hosting the Bermuda team visiting north Florida, was staged at Thunderbolt Park amidst lacrosse practice at one end and some Fleming Island Dreadnaughts youth football practice at the other end.
"Just on that one field in Fleming Island, three different sports were represented," said Morgan. "We have the facilities in Clay County, including the new regional park sports complex off Blanding Blvd that we just hosted a Florida Ultimate Frisbee tournament just a weekend ago. We also have a flag football tournament in the works."
The Wolverines, coached by Aaron Church, a former Navy soccer and rugby standout, then a four-year starter at Arkansas State, now an NCAA Div. I program, won both ends of the two-game series with Bermuda and won a Florida state title in 2019 in the early inception of the team in Jacksonville.
"Football in all three counties around here; Clay, Duval and St. Johns, all bring a tremendous amount of athletic talent from football and we are just trying to bring the rugby interest into north Florida schools," said Church. "A lot of the kids we get come to us after finishing their high school careers, coming to give it a try and realizing that they should have done rugby for the last four years. It's that kind of sport."
In 2024, the Wolverines lost in the Florida Youth Rugby Union State Final 53-19 to Okapi Rugby of Weston, FL.
Locally, football players from Fleming Island; Jered Rhodes; Oakleaf, Prince Savea, and Middleburg high schools, have put their feet into the waters of rugby after finishing their high school football players.
"We take a lot of football players from around the north Florida area that maybe thought they were going to be NCAA Div. 1 scholarship guys, introduce them to rugby, and then watch them fall in love with the sport," said Wolverine Board member Aaron Taylor, who has been with the Wolverines since its inception in 2017. "Coach Church has a lot of connections and there a lot more opportunities to four-year scholarships to rugby players that go unsigned then football and, once a kid plays, he doesn't go back to football."
For Savea, a standout at Oakleaf High School, the transition to football has been a strategic life move that has quickly gotten a scholarship offer from Life University after just a short stint of playing rugby.
"I went to River City Prep for a season hoping to transfer out, didn't lose any eligibility and got introduced to rugby," said Savea. "I didn't know much about rugby, but it's very close to football and already have interest from schools like St. Thomas University and Life after just four months. I'm the prop, the guy in the middle of the scrum. Honestly, rugby is so much more constant action."
For Rhodes, also a state weightlifting champion for Fleming Island High School, Church noted that his strength and very athletic talent made him an easy fit for rugby and that it has already paid off. Rhodes recently committed to play rugby at American International College, a Division I rugby program in Springfield, Massachusetts.
"Of all his scholarship offers from football, rugby just gave him his biggest scholarship opportunity," said Church, coach of the Wolverines for nine years. "Rugby scholarships are not as saturated as football. I get recruiters who ask for some interest in rugby and a great athlete. More money available and not necessarily under NCAA rules for roster size."