With a little help from Clint Eastwood’s “Invictus,” could America at last be embracing rugby? At least one company, Canterbury of New Zealand, hopes so.

This story first appeared in the December 31, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

In August, British clothing and footwear retailer JD Sports Fashion plc paid about $11 million to acquire Canterbury out of administration. The business was founded in the New Zealand province of Canterbury in 1904 to make rugby jerseys. Now JD Sports is setting up a North American subsidiary for Canterbury of New Zealand, JD Sports’ first wholly owned subsidiary outside of Europe. Colin Gillooly, who has been with the brand more than four years, was named North American chief executive officer. He oversees an office in Metuchen, N.J.

Canterbury is a world leader in the rugby space, supplying high-performance sportswear to the international Rugby Union teams of Australia and the reigning Rugby World Cup champions, South Africa, as well as many other teams and elite athletes. Canterbury provided costumes for “Invictus,” a film about South Africa’s victory in the 1995 World Cup, but its three-kiwi logo went unseen because uniforms back then couldn’t show brands, and Eastwood insisted on the historical accuracy of that point, Gillooly said.

Canterbury also trades in protective gear, compression garments, and cricket and golf wear. But its identity in the U.S. has been led by its lifestyle clothing range, which includes outerwear and wovens. Its biggest U.S. retail partners are Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus. Classic and rugged, it addresses a market for men too old for flashy jeanswear brands and too young for island lifestyle brands, Gillooly said.

JD Sports, a publicly traded company, gives Canterbury the financial support to build the brand throughout North America, said Gillooly.

“We’re going to focus on maximizing revenue streams and not get distracted. In the past the idea was to build up the company to sell it, so we invested in things that didn’t have an immediate return. But now we’re improving sourcing, quality, deliveries and client relations,” said Gillooly.

Canterbury has an external showroom in New York and plans to exhibit at Project Las Vegas and Blue New York. It also owns a label called Cotton Oxford, which it would like to roll out as a better-price label.

The sport of rugby is followed with great fervor around the globe, especially throughout Europe and the English-speaking world. It has little traction in the U.S., where many aspects of the game are redundant to American football, although there are college and club teams throughout America.

“We’re not going to be famous because people will suddenly love the sport. We can’t stand on our rugby roots, but we can play to them. If people like the product and they read the label, it reinforces the purchase rather than initiates it. I think that’s what authentic heritage brands can do,” said Gillooly.

Canterbury can take heart: the U.S. has a compelling precedent for building a lifestyle brand around a relatively obscure sport — polo.

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