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The USA Rugby Emirates Airline DI Men’s Club Championship will be fought between two teams of striking similarities and immense differences. At 7:00pm MST on Saturday at Infinity Park in Glendale, Colo., the New York Athletic Club and the Austin Huns will kick off a match that will feature some of the best rugby in the nation.
Both clubs got their start in the early 1970s, but only NYAC has tasted glory in its past. The New York squad won four Super League titles to go with a DI championship in 2015 before finishing in third last season in the American Rugby Premiership. Meanwhile, this is the Austin Huns’ first foray into the national playoff scene in its club's history. The Huns were a primarily a social club before they heavily invested in talent and coaching in late 2016 in an effort to turn pro.
Each squad was extremely successful during the regular season, but were challenged by high quality competition before the national playoffs began. For NYAC head coach Mike Quinn, “hardwork, belief, and a desire to be as good as they can be,” powered his team to the finals.
“[We had] hard challenges in every game we played,” Quinn added. “We try to have the team prepared for those challenges and the players lead the way... We got a very timely wake up call against Old Blue two weeks before Nationals in Pittsburgh. We played two hard games against Mystic and the Chicago Lions and got through to where we are for Saturday.”
As for the Huns, head coach Eugene Eloff and his coaching staff of Danie de Villiers, Pedrie Wannenburg, CJ de Wet, and James de Lacey changed the culture of the elite team. “It was hard work, sacrifice, and dedication that got the team excelling so rapid and we are still far from where we want to be,” Eloff stated. “Our goal was to win the Red River and then we knew we were in for shot to make it to the Finals. We worked hard and smart and had two great games [against SFGG and Belmont Shore] in the playoffs, but we know we are in for a big game against NYAC in the final.”
Eloff believes that his team’s fitness and ability to adapt has proven to be the Huns most valuable assets this season. “We are very fit and in top condition to play a hard physical match for 80 minutes... We have an exciting game plan with lots of variations so can adapt easy. We have a good mix of youth and experienced players, good ball carriers, and a few X factor players. Most of all, we have great character and don’t give up.”
By investing in talent, Austin has a lineup littered with quality players. Eagles Todd Clever, Peter Malcolm, and Hanco Germishuys anchor the forward pack while, while several PRO Rugby and international players like Martin Knoetze, Michael Reid, and captain Lomani Tongotongo fill out the rest of the roster.
On the other side of the pitch, NYAC is loaded with top athletes starting with its four Eagles in Nate Brakeley, Justin Hundley, Seamus Kelly, and Al McFarland. However, according to Quinn, the backbone of the team comes down to two guys. “Harry Bennett is our backs leader and Nate Brakeley is our forwards leader. They call the shots. Everyone on our squad is a playmaker. We can’t operate unless everyone executes their job.”
At this level of competition, both coaches have researched their opponent and the only thing left is to be decided is on the field on Saturday. “We know [the Huns] are favorites and have a very big, powerful and well-organized team,” Quinn said. “We will have to execute our game plan and out-work the opposition.”
Coach Eloff echoed his NYAC counterpart saying, “We know NYAC is big and physical, but so are all teams. We will have to be on top of our game. Set phases are crucial for creating opportunities to get points. Finals are won on defense, the team that makes the least mistakes, and uses their opportunities. Honestly, I am not focusing on our opponent, but on our game.”
A championship for the Huns will be a statement to the rugby community that they are here and are a force to be reckoned with. “The Huns were seen as a social party team and we are now known in the USA rugby community,” Eloff concluded. “It is great to see the status of the team change so quick from a no name brand to a dangerous opponent. Rugby is growing in the USA and I believe we are playing a big role in the progression.”
Getting back the DI Finals has been a goal for NYAC ever since the disappointing end to last season’s campaign. Quinn is not ready to let this season go until the last epic fight for the crown. “To win the national championship means everything to us as group of rugby men. We have put in a lot of hard work since last July to get here.”
Catch all the action on the Rugby Channel at 7:00pm MST on Saturday as the website will live stream all the games of the USA Rugby Emirate Airline Club Championships.