“To be an outstanding Rugby club that provides an enjoyable and successful environment for its members; on and off the field.” – West Houston Rugby Club Mission Statement
Starting a rugby club is hard. Winning games is hard. You hear stories about clubs and the road they take to National Championships or other headline-worthy tales. We at the TRU wanted to spotlight one of our member clubs and dive into what it really took for this single-side social team to successfully grow and expand into the powerhouse they are today. Introducing – the West Houston Rugby Club.
Founded in 2006, the West Houston Rugby Club* began senior-side club play in the Texas Rugby Union’s Men’s Division 3. Following an outstanding 2011-2012 season, the side was promoted to Division 2 play. With this promotion came the need for more structure and experience. The formerly social and fluid team roster struggled in the higher competition. The side still pulled out wins and finished mid-table most seasons but the areas for improvement were clear; more organization was needed.
The Lions had two groups critically underserved by the Division 2 competition – older veterans who started the club and still wanted a run around on Saturday and rugby rookies, young athletes who hadn’t quite grasped the game yet. In 2017 the club entered a second side into the TRU D4 competition. TRU Division 4 is intended to encourage clubs to field developmental sides in addition to their competitive sides (that lead to a USA Rugby National Championship) and to provide a league for social and newly formed clubs. The addition of this Division 4 side to the Lions provided the opportunity the club needed to give all of its members game-time and experience.
As the Lions added an additional side, they realized that they had the resources to grow the game of rugby in Houston, along with their individual club. The Lions always had ties to the youth game in Houston. Several of the founding members were involved in youth rugby, others had coached local High School Teams to National Playoffs, even more were recently graduated youth players who wanted to continue playing the game they loved. A leadership group was developed to, by popular demand, create a new youth club in the area. While developing the youth organization it became clear that the two programs shared the same vision and mission. They would be much stronger and more likely to succeed if banded together. Thus the West Houston Rugby Club was born.**
The new West Houston Rugby Club drew significant interest from both financial benefactors and professional rugby clubs. The former allowed the continued growth of the club while the latter bolstered the success. After the merger [of Senior and Youth programs], the West Houston Lions set lofty membership goals and achieved them. Day 1 the club had three high school players, now three years later, it has the numbers to field two sides (varsity and JV).
In 2017 the Houston SaberCats were in the middle of the inaugural Major League Rugby season. In order to maintain their large roster and get those individuals playing time, the Sabercats allowed players to jump in with local D2 sides on weekends they were not rostered for MLR. Similar trends were happening across the country with other MLR sides, however most sides had Division 1 teams to associate with. West Houston Lions and Houston SaberCats entered into a mutually beneficial relationship which gave the HSC the pathway team they needed and gave the WHL the top tier of competition – a Division 1 Men’s Side.
With three sides competing in the club competition (Div 1, 2 and 4) as well as an exploding youth and High School program, the club now faced new challenges. Relying on city space to host games, tournaments, and practices comes with massive setbacks. The space was small, the uprights had to be easily removed, and the club could not generate any real income from spectators at the matches. To grow as strong and formidable as the big names of Texas Rugby (think Austin Blacks and Austin Huns), the club needed its own space.
With the help of Ocean Offshore and other committed sponsors, the club was able to secure 30 acres of space on the west side of Houston. The first 15 acres are for Phase 1; the first part of which was constructing two playable fields with goalposts and parking. Thanks to the hundreds of hours of volunteer help (blood, sweat and tears), this was completed in Summer 2019. The second part of Phase 1 involves irrigation, additional parking, and construction of a clubhouse. Targeted to be completed within the calendar year, West Houston works constantly with its members and volunteers to push this along. The second 15 acres of land are committed to Phase 2: the development of more professional-quality pitches. These pitches will allow tournaments and championship events to come home to Houston.
A professional pathway team needs professional training space. To address these needs, a relationship formed with Athlete Training + Health (ATH). Their new West facility in conjunction with Memorial Herman, is a full-service Human Performance center with indoor/outdoor turf training fields, weight training, lockers/showers, access to sports nutritionists, S&C coaches, athletic trainers, orthopedic physicians, and more under one roof. The Houston SaberCats had a standing partnership with ATH since their inception. It made sense that the West Houston Lions provide the same for their professionally seeking players.
Now entering the 2019-2020 Cup season, the West Houston Rugby Club is ready for anything. Its strong base of members consists of active players for three separate divisional squads (Div 1, 2, and 4), youth and high school teams, a new girls high school program, and the strong existing network of alumni (many of who have continued within the rugby community as referees, administrators, and coaches).
Current Club President Hunter Nezat closes with his thoughts:
“I’d have to say that the tremendous number of hours that our volunteers and leadership put into this program are key to the success. It has been our goal from the start to build a professional-quality program, so every decision is evaluated in that spirit. We’ve been fortunate in the way several of these events have played out, but it has been evident in our experience that labor in the service and spirit of rugby is most often rewarding.
Looking forward, we intend to continue growing the youth sides and investing in the professional development pathway. Obviously, our grounds are progressing quickly. We intend to become regular bidders on calls for tournament hosts. We’ve added a girls team to our Youth program this season and still intend to bring another Women’s team into the mix in Houston when the time is right.”
*From 2004-2006 the Katy Rugby Club was a social side made up of Katy Barbarians coaches and former U19 players/alumni. The Katy Rugby Club entered the TRU as the West Houston Barbarians in 2006. In the 2011-2012 the club changed to the Katy Lions winning all but one D3 match (the club was ineligible for playoffs due to a player CIPPing error). The team was known as the Katy Lions until 2017.
**It must also be noted that the original clubs that now make up the West Houston Lions were associated at separate points with the Katy Barbarians Youth teams. Peter Evans and Neil Doherty (Former Lions President) first coached the Katy Barbarians (originally Cinco Ranch Barbarians) leading them to great achievements in their first years. The Katy Youth and Men’s team never formally merged or separated.
This article was written with help from current club Chairman Hunter Nezat and former West Houston Barbarians/Katy Lions RFC founding board member and current TRRA Chairman Tim O’Gara. Without them, it would not have been possible.