Detroit, Tempe playing for first-ever National Championship in Men’s DII clash

LAFAYETTE, Colo. - Detroit Tradesmen and Tempe Old Devils are each attempting to win its first Club Championship, but only one team will achieve its goal when the two teams meet June 5 for the Men's Division II National Championship.

Tempe has come awfully close to hoisting the championship trophy in recent years. In 2014 the Old Devils reached the Finals, but lost to Rocky Gorge. Last year, Life West ended their season in the Semifinals before winning the title two weeks later. In a club landscape that has seen plenty of parity in recent years, Tempe's ability to make deep postseason runs year after year has been no easy task, and can be credited to a host of excellent coaches.

"We have had consistency of the same message: excellence," explained longtime Old Devil Brandon Thompson. "It came from Salty [Thompson], Lee Redlegs, and Nehumi Tuihalamaka for years, and recently the same sentiment and torch for the pursuit of rugby excellence has been carried forward by Salty, Junior Faa'aso, and Rachel Larson."

The club's coaching pedigree has been crucial, but Tempe has no shortage of talented players. Loose forwards Rick Darrow and Lavi Taumoepeau are strong ball carriers, while fly half Iopu Sanonu leads a quick-footed back line that includes Maceo Brown, Will Danielson, Lopaka Morris, and Alex Taefu.

With plenty of muscle up front and speed to burn on the outside, the Old Devils implement an attack pattern that uses one of its strengths to better utilize another team strength.

"We count on our power to punch through the gain line, which allows us to use our speed on the corners once a team is disorganized from the initial punch," Thompson said."

Tempe's larger ball carriers will be tough to bring down, but Detroit should be up for the task. The Tradesmen have earned a reputation of being hard-nosed at the point of contact, and played to that standard during two mud-filled Club Playoff victories in Pittsburgh two weeks back.

Detroit takes pride in its physicality, but are not the Tradesmen of old. In the four years since Head Coach Jed Elley has been with the club, they have not only seen an increase in numbers, but the team's offensive prowess has grown with an increase in skill level and field recognition. Elley has been a huge help in a renewed club culture that has aided the team on the pitch, but it has been newly-brought-on forwards coach Herb Reich that has revamped the team's play in the set piece.

Reich's presence has also benefitted the play of established front-rowers Benjamin Wendt and Jonathan Zemmer. Wendt is the team's eldest statesmen and is immensely valuable, while Zemmer is also impressive in the set piece, but his history of playing in the centers shows when he has ball in hand.

Athletically, No. 8 Conrad Bontrager and outside center Samisoni Hafoka are gifted and should receive plenty of attention from the Old Devils. Along with Wendt, scrum half Kevin Muto has been with the Tradesmen for quite some time and makes excellent decisions.

Coming out of the Midwest, Detroit has not been tested much this season, and the team's closest game on the scoreboard was a 21-point win over the Cleveland Crusaders back in September. Elley is quick to point out that the Village Lions had his squad under a fair amount of pressure before the Tradesmen ran away from them in the Semifinals. Also, the team began 2016 with nonconference tests against Division I Austin Huns and Cincinnati Wolfhounds, which should alleviate any uneasiness over the team's lack of competition over the course of the season.

"It has been a concern, but I think we addressed that appropriately," said Elley. "We faced some adversity in those fixtures (against Austin and Cincinnati) and came out on the losing side, but it helped us prepare for more pressure and being put on the back foot."

Based on the brief studying the Tradesmen have done on the Old Devils, they are prepared for a sturdy test from Tempe.

"They look like a very dangerous team, and they obviously have a very good track record of making the Finals," Elley said. "We respect that and respect them as a team, but in the same sentence I haven't been too focused on them, and have really focused on our team the past few weeks."

Life West and Rocky Gorge may have moved on to Division I, but does not mean the Old Devils think they will be able to breeze their way to a National Championship.

"They are a strong, powerful team and we know that we will have to defend the fringes of the rucks feverishly," noted Thompson of the Tradesmen. "Defense is the key for any strong team left at this point, and if we can win the gain line and tackle them behind that line we will be doing well."

The Men's DII Final at Infinity Park in Glendale, Colo., will take place Sunday, June 5, in the 2016 Club Championships' second day of action. Detroit and Tempe will take the field at 2 p.m. MT and the game will air free of charge on The Rugby Channel.

The full listing of the 2016 Club Championship matches can be found here.