Local Axemen look to represent U.S.

Spinnaker

When one looks at the Jacksonville Axemen roster, it’s unsurprising they are the defending American National Rugby League Champions. The Axemen boast 11 players that have been put into the 40-man pool that the United States Tomahawks National Rugby team will choose from.

The 11 Axemen are headed by Matt Clark, Bob Knoephel, Kenny Britt and University of North Florida Alumni Apple Pope and Taco Pope. All five are current members of the Tomahawks, who are coming off a win over Canada in September’s Colonial Cup.

Other Axemen including Craig Howitt, Jay DeFau, Josh Longenecker, Matt Thornton, Akarika Dawn and Brent Shorten hope to be chosen to join the 22-man U.S. National team roster.

While the Tomahawks’ final 22 is not set, they know where they will be taking the field next.

UNF’s Hodges Stadium, where the Axemen play their home games, will play host to the Atlantic Cup Nov. 14-21, where the U.S. National team will host the Canadian and Jamaican National teams in the three team international tournament.

“That’s a big deal,” Clark said. “The fans that we have in Jacksonville are so big on us that allowing them to see a higher level of rugby than we already have is a big deal. It helps the world see the amount of support that our fans give to the sport of rugby here in Jacksonville.”

Clark, nicknamed the Cinder Block, said he is proud to represent the red, white and blue, and knows how much of an honor it is to represent his country. The eight-year veteran looks forward to playing for the U.S. again.

“I was saying the other day that this is the second most honorable thing I could do to represent my country other than being in the military,” Clark said. “Anytime you put on a uniform that says U.S.A. in any sport, it’s a big deal. To me it’s the equivalent to being an Olympic athlete.”

While getting the chance to play for your country is a big honor in itself, for the Pope brothers it will mean even more to take the field in the Atlantic Cup. Both started playing rugby for the UNF’s club team, the Deadbirds. With the chance to come back to UNF and show case his talents against a higher level of competition, Apple Pope said he is excited.

“Being able to come back to my alma mater as an alumni and being able to represent my country at the same time is just an amazing feeling,” Pope said. “Being back there in front of the professors and on the grounds where I trained at originally playing college rugby is just a great feeling.”

Pope said that bringing in the Atlantic Cup will be great for the school and city of Jacksonville. Pope, Clark, and Knoephel all share the opinion that rugby is growing in popularity around Jacksonville and in the U.S.

“It’s getting really big in America,” Knoephel said. “A lot of it is starting here in Jacksonville and starting at UNF with the professional teams coming over here and the international games here, Jacksonville is starting to become, I guess, a hub for rugby here in the United States.”