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With a vicious defense and opportunistic quick-strike offense, the Life West Gladiators won the DII Men’s Club National Championship over Wisconsin, 43-24, Sunday at Infinity Park in Glendale, Colo. The win makes the second-year club 1-1 in title games, having lost in the DIII final a year ago.
In an extremely physical game, Life West was dangerous with ball in hand. However, aggression on defense could have cost the Gladiators with two yellow cards and a red card. Wisconsin played bravely, grabbing the lead for a short time in the first half before wing Leki Latu scored two of his four tries to give Life West the nine-point lead at halftime.
“We started well and had a bit of a lull period in the 20-minute mark in the first half,” said Life West coach Adrian Ferris. “We were able to come back into the game and we were fortunate enough to score two late tries in the first half to put us ahead at the break.”
The match began with a Life West Haka as Wisconsin stood in silence. The game started as a battle of field position, but a knock against Wisconsin at the 22 set up the Gladiators for their first points. At the fourth minute, flanker Akuila Uaisele grabbed the ball from behind a ruck and burst through the middle, beating three tacklers for the try. Blues Super Rugby flyhalf Orene Ai’i made the conversion for the 7-0 lead.
Three minutes later, Wisconsin took advantage of Life West’s penalty trouble to maneuver itself into position for a penalty kick. Flyhalf Miles Jobke’s boot was good to cut the lead to 7-3.
At the 11th minute, Ai’i missed a penalty kick from 40 meters out. Wisconsin’s subsequent 22-meter drop went directly out of bounds and set up Life West with a scrum at the 22. The Gladiators pounded the inside with the forwards, and Ai’i sent a skip pass to outside center Mose Fuala’au on an overload for the try. The conversion was successful, and Life West took the 14-3 advantage.
Life West continued to create opportunities, but Wisconsin weathered the storm waiting for its time to strike. While a few players were distracted by a scuffle after a contested ruck, Wisconsin turned a poached ball into a 60-meter try by wing Andrew Norton. Jobke connected on the conversion to put the score at 14-10.
Wisconsin kept up the pressure and used momentum to score a second try in the 26th minute. After a five-meter lineout, forwards ball resulted in a try by prop Flavio Chuahy. With the conversion, Wisconsin went up, 17-14.
Wisconsin’s lead lasted for nine minutes until wing Leki Latu scored two tries to put Life West up at halftime. In the 35th minute, the opportune Gladiators used a quick lineout where Uaisele broke the line and Latu finished with a try in support.
Three minutes later, international Tongan captain Nili Latu chip kicked to the sideline from 30 meters out where Life West had a three on one overload. Leki Latu caught the kick and beat fullback Chris Bauch for the try. At the end of the half, Life West led 26-17 over Wisconsin.
“Leki’s a player who can score tries. We talked about him upping his work rate so that he put himself in position to score, and he did that really well today,” said Ferris of one of the two standout Latus.
“Nili’s a world class player, and whilst he’s only here for a short period of time, hopefully the players will have seen what’s required to be a professional, and if his influence has rubbed off in a lot of positive ways, and it’s a good thing to have him and Orene Ai’i as part of our squad because it showcases to these young players what it takes to play at the highest level.”
With the Life West squad warned in the first half about their aggressive style on defense, it was a matter of time before the referee got involved. Four minutes into the half, scrumhalf Devereaux Ferris was yellow carded for a late hit and sent off for 10 minutes. Unfortunately, Wisconsin was unable to generate any points with the man advantage as Life West clamped down on defense.
Once back at full strength, Life West kicked deep into Wisconsin territory. After a turnover, the Gladiators found themselves with an overload on the left side. Ferris dummied the defender and scored a 20-meter try in the 62nd minute. The kick after was missed, but Life West increased its lead to 31-17.
Down by 14 points with less than 15 minutes left, Wisconsin had its best opportunity to get back into the game when Life West was hit with back-to-back yellow and red cards. After the red card, Wisconsin attempted to run the ball out of its own 10 meters and Leki Latu picked up an errant pass and carried into the try zone for his third try. Ai’i converted the try to extend the lead to 38-17.
Using the two-man advantage, Wisconsin worked its way downfield and Jobke finally got his club’s first points of the second half in the 77th minute by besting two tacklers on the way to the try. Wisconsin tried to narrow the gap, but Life West punctuated the day with a fourth try by Leki Latu in the final minute of regulation. Player of the Match Nili Latu missed the last conversion, but it didn’t matter as Life West celebrated the 43-24 victory and its first National Championship.
“It’s massive. What it does is give validation to all the effort that is put into this program,” said Ferris of the win. “From a club perspective it’s allowing us to show that we are a strong rugby program and growing, and I think personally we haven’t seen the best of what this program can offer.”