It wouldn’t be that much of a stretch to imagine the wrestling character JBL as a rich, power-mad sports team owner, a cross between Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys and the Attitude Era’s Mr. McMahon. He’d strut around in his Stetson, barking orders, meddling in team affairs, demanding his way. Well, JBL doesn’t own a team but the man who played him does — and pro rugby is better because of the enthusiasm of John “JBL” Layfield.
Over the last few years, Layfield has immersed himself into the world of rugby. You might think that strange considering he comes from a strong American football background, even playing in the World League of American Football. One day he realized that he wanted to help the youth of Bermuda, where he lives. After some research he decided that the most accessible contact sport that he could present to disadvantaged youth would be rugby. From there he founded Beyond Rugby Bermuda and helps thousands of kids across the island.
Layfield fell hard for the game. “I love the ethos of rugby, the principles of rugby, the integrity of rugby,” said Layfield. “I think all of that makes it a completely unique sport.”
Soon after, Layfield met James Kennedy, of the Murphy Kennedy Group, and was presented with the opportunity to invest in a professional rugby team in New York City. In February 2018 it was announced that Rugby United New York would be the first professional rugby team in the Big Apple and would join the Major League Rugby league. Layfield was quick to praise his co-owner for his work ethic and determination and noted that that Kennedy’s passion has really kickstarted the squad.
“I want to make sure that you know that James Kennedy started the team,” said a humble Layfield. “He is the whole driving force behind the team, the Rugby United New York team. I am his partner.”
You might wonder if there would be space for a professional rugby team in the cramped sports market of New York City. In fact there is a great demand for the sport. What kind of a fan base does the new team have?
“There are 54 rugby clubs in New York City alone and people don’t realize that it is a rugby hotbed, an old rugby hotbed,” stated Layfield. “There are 5,500 inner city kids playing rugby with Play Rugby USA and the graduation rates for those kids have gone from 50 % to 100 % at some of those schools.” With a large rugby playing population Layfield was still worried about the success of the new squad and wondered if people would buy tickets to see games.
Rugby United New York’s home pitch is located in the cozy confines of Gaelic Park in the Bronx. The 92-year-old venue can hold 2,000 spectators and is owned by Manhattan College. A few hours before its debut, as New York was to take on Mystic River Rugby Club of Boston, things did not look good.
“Five hours before our match with Boston we didn’t know if there would be anyone in the crowd or not as we hadn’t sold that many tickets,” said Layfield. “It was cold that night and we thought it would be a walk-up crowd. Sure enough people came and we couldn’t put another person in the arena. We were standing room only; it really surprised people and we couldn’t put another person in the arena. It was because of Boston, because our guys, New York, were playing Boston.” Success with a sell-out and success on the field as Layfield’s team won its inaugural home match 50 to 0.
Their next match was against the Ontario Arrows, based out of Toronto. Sure enough the New York team took the game 36-19. It was a tighter game then the scoreboard indicated and the rematch is set for April 14th at 4:30 p.m. at Toronto’s York University Stadium.
“First game we played with those guys it was incredibly physical,” said Layfield with enthusiasm. “Ontario has a huge physical team. They have one guy, number 4, named [Josh] Van Horne, we wanted to give him a visa and play for us. The guy is just an animal! I love the way he played with an attitude, well, all of them do. It was fun to watch and it was a really physical game. I expect the same physicality but I bet they ramp it up a notch. They are a solid side with big guys who enjoy hitting people.”
Ontario Arrows General Manager Mark Winokur is excited about having another shot at New York after his squad’s recent road trip. “This is the first home game for the Arrows after trips to Denver, Houston, New York and Utah, so the boys will be pumped to play in front of their friends, family and fans,” said Winokur. “We know it will be a tough game against New York but we took some positives out of the win in Utah and will want to keep that momentum going forward. The weather here has not been great but as Canadians we know a bit about bad weather, so we know folks will be out to support us no matter what.”
When you listen to Layfield talk about his rugby journey you are talking to him, not the character JBL. He is passionate and excited about his team and you can tell he bleeds the orange and blue colours of Rugby United New York. There are no shenanigans, no chair shots, no underhanded actions of a heel, Layfield loves his team and this game.
“I love rugby!” exclaimed Layfield. “I still don’t understand the intricacies but what a fun sport!”
Check out John Layfield’s squad Rugby United New York take on the Ontario Arrows on April 14th, 4:30 pm kick-off at York University Stadium in Toronto. Tickets are $15 on-line and $20 at the gate along with free entry for all youth (under-16) and American citizens (with passport). For more information go to ontarioarrowsrugby.com.