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With both 2014 finalists exiting in the regional rounds, there will be a new DII Men’s Club National Champion this year. The two clubs in the final are no strangers to the championship stage. California powerhouse, the Life West Gladiators, advanced to the DIII final last year and moved up in competition to face Wisconsin, who returns to their third National Championship match in four years. They'll square off at 3:00 pm local time Sunday at Infinity Park in Glendale, Colo.
Wisconsin lost the final in 2012, returning a year later to win it all. After exiting in the quarterfinals last year, Wisconsin retooled and came out in 2015 to make a statement.
“Both teams that we faced in the quarters and semis were well prepared and of a high caliber," said Wisconsin coach Adam Thimming. "New York Rugby Club had a very skilled set of backs and were organized to attack with ball in hand and off the foot. Atlanta Old White also had athletic players 1-15 and were a game side. It is obvious that DII club rugby has improved in quality in recent years.”
Thimmig’s main goal this season was to improve on defense. With the tough midwestern-style clubs that they play regularly, defense has been brought to the forefront and forced Wisconsin to not depend on individual playmakers. Fullback Chris Bauch, who has made more try-saving tackles than anyone this year, epitomizes the focus on defense. The offense is led by points leader, Miles Jobke, and hard-running prop Tony Esealuka. The heart of team has been the juggernaut forward pack that dominated the set piece all season on both sides of the ball.
As for the opponent, Thimmig said, “I saw them play in the DIII final last year and have seen some match film. I understand that they are a large side and use the offload game well. We will need to bring our defensive ‘A’ game as they have scored many points in the vast majority of their matches this season.” In the last contest of the season, Wisconsin will be ready for whatever Life West brings to the game."
Life West has taken the club rugby world by storm only a year after its formation and the only direction is up. In their first year, the Gladiators made it to the DIII Championship and moved up to DII this year in search of greater competition. They barreled through Northern California en route to a convincing win against Snake River in the Pacific North Championship. Head coach Adriaan Ferris believes that Snake River was his club’s best performance this season.
“They were a really tough side, well coached, big strong forwards and enterprising back. I thought we had a dominant performance that day," he said. "We certainly matched them up front and defended them very well.”
In the West Regionals in San Francisco, Life West blew out the St. Louis Bombers in a lopsided affair setting up a match against 2014 finalist Tempe. In unfamiliar territory for the first time all season, Life West trailed most of the game.
“Tempe plays a different style of game and they put us under a lot of pressure. We were losing the game for the first 79 minutes. They did everything they needed to do to win, but we persevered, came on strong and secured the tie in the last minute of the game," said Ferris.
"We rested a few fringe players against St. Louis knowing we would need speed and fitness in the game late on Sunday. Fortunately, we had enough gas in the tank to get the win. Tempe was a very good side, well coached by Junior [Fa'aso'o] and Salty [Thompson]. We were pushed right to the limit. We were fortunate to get through playing the way we did, it was not one of our better performances.”
The club’s success starts with a core group of players that were part of the club last year. Prop Fancy Namulau'ulu and locks John Thomas and John Colvill lead the forward pack with their experience, scrumhalf Devereaux Ferris directs the flow of the offense. Centers Suli Holani and Mose Fuala'au and wing Junior Helu are standouts in the backline. With Ferris, Fuala'au, and Helu each under 21 years old, current international Tongan captain Nili Latu (No. 8) and former Blues Super Rugby player Orene Ai'i (No. 10) help with the Gladiator’s on-field leadership and big game experience.
The key to the success for Life West this season has been the self-belief in the systems they run. “We play a slightly different style of game than other teams here in Northern California,” Ferris said. “It’s structured in the sense that we position players around the field depending on what attack map we use. It’s taken awhile to make for it to become familiar and to get a good understanding of it. What has taken us to the finals is a lot of hard work with our conditioning... We work hard to be a team that stays in our attack and defensive systems for long periods and we look to apply pressure on both sides of the ball throughout the game.”
This year, Ferris hopes his club can do what the team could not do last year, win a National Championship.
“They come from the state of Wisconsin, so they are big, tough and physical. We have some footage on them and they have some good footballers," said Ferris. "They will bring physicality to the game. They will try and take us on up-front and look to capitalize on our mistakes. We need to be smart with how we play and need to make sure we bring a level of physicality to the game. If we do not, then it will be a long day at the office.”
Regardless of what happens in the final this weekend, Life West has its sights set on loftier competition. “There has been talk that we'll head up to DI next season or possibly go to PRP, ultimately that will be determined after the season,” Ferris added. “We have good infrastructure here at the club. We have three men’s teams and at present, we don’t have the ability to give all players regular game time - that is frustrating. If we went to PRP and had a DI or DII side, we could give all players more time playing the game, which is what it is all about. Players want to improve and to do that they need to be playing tough matches at their respective level week in, week out.”