There always seems to be one thing in a person’s life that comes full circle, and for new Gamecock club rugby head coach John Roberts, it is rugby and the University of South Carolina.
A 1990 graduate of the university, Roberts was playing catch with a football on the Horseshoe his first week in Columbia when a man named Warren Motley came up to him.
“He walked up to me, and he says, 'Hey, man, you ever heard of rugby?'" Roberts said. “'You want to come out, we’re having practice, you want to come out and give it a run?'”
From there, Roberts' love of the game grew. After playing four seasons at Carolina, he played a few seasons for the Greenville men’s team. Roberts then accepted a job at Furman University to be its communications director in 1996. Two years into his tenure, he created a rugby program for the Paladins.
Under his helm, Furman went an impressive 188-64-1, making three National Small College Rugby Organization Championships and raising $400,000 for a rugby field. The field was named after him: John S. Roberts Rugby Field. He said he would like to do the same at Carolina: Make the rugby program not only a Division I program, but give it a nice stadium to play at.
“We had a nice field, but we wanted to kind of build around it,” Roberts said. “We didn’t have any stands, we didn't have a scoreboard."
Roberts returned to his alma mater this year, looking to build the program into the national powerhouse he said he believes it can become. Since Sept. 3, the Gamecocks have had two recruits on campus to help build the future of the program.
"It's exciting to have a coach that's going to be in Columbia," sophomore Jack Kelly said. "He's all-in on coaching us, which is exciting, and he's super enthusiastic about coming out."
Last weekend, the Gamecocks started the Roberts era with two wins and a draw. These three scrimmage games were far more than the Gamecocks were able to play last season, though, as the club rugby program did not play under the university’s name due to club restrictions from COVID-19. It did have select practices under senior captain John Golden, but it couldn't travel and play different schools.
“Our coaches couldn’t come to practices or anything like that, so I was pretty much stuck coaching, which was something I’ve never done before,” Golden said.
This season, members of the rugby team described the practices as some of the toughest they’ve ever had. They went full contact, running drills, tackling and racing burpee laps on the first day, almost like a survival of the fittest, according to Golden.
For a few kids, this was their first rugby practice. Most finished the drills within three minutes; for those who did not, Roberts told four guys to go and encourage them.
"So, suddenly, these guys get on these guys like sharks," Roberts said.
That’s the kind of atmosphere that Roberts wants, he said: A clean run program with loads of excitement.
This season, the Gamecocks are bringing in former football offensive lineman Gavin Bennett and long-time rugby player Chance Connolly, led by multiple others.
South Carolina began its home Southeastern Collegiate Rugby Conference campaign Saturday at Bluff Field against rival Georgia. The team had control early but lost on a walk-off try, 17-15.