Local rugby club plays for national title Sunday

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

Detroit — The football field at Eliza Howell Park is about 20 minutes from downtown Detroit and Ford Field.

Some weeds are about knee-high, towering above the few vestiges of grass remaining in the city park. The ground is hard and uneven, strewn with litter and debris.

It’s not an ideal place to run and practice, but it’s home for the Detroit Tradesmen, a club rugby team.

Miles from the lavish confines of Ford Field or Detroit’s practice fields in Allen Park, the Tradesmen are looking to do something even the Lions haven’t done in almost 60 years — win a championship.

Detroit plays the Tempe Old Devils in the Division II Rugby Club National Championship on Sunday in Glendale, Colorado. It’s the first trip to the title game for the Tradesmen, who reached the semifinals in 2008.

“In the grand scheme of things, it’s a big deal for the sport and a big deal for us,” forward Giuseppe Tocco said. “If we could win a championship, there’s a good chance that we could get called up to Division I.”

It’s a big step into the national rugby spotlight for the Tradesmen, and much of the boost has come from coach Jed Elley, in his fourth season.

Elley is from the rugby-rich nation of South Africa, and things fell into place when he was looking to find a team to coach.

“I just came in and gave them guidance and direction and tried to install a slightly different culture to what they were used to and they took to it and applied themselves and committed to it and we’re seeing the results of it now,” Elley said. “They were looking for a change and to step it up a notch.

“I teamed up with a couple leaders on the club and worked with them and got their buy-in and explained my ideas and philosophies. I got their buy-in and used those guys to mold the culture.”

The culture has turned the Tradesmen into a dominant force, mowing through regional competition — their closest match in the postseason has been 21 points.

The Tradesmen swept their eight matches in the East Division of the Midwest, posting a league-high 553 points. In the playoffs, they shut out Lincoln Park (Illinois) Rugby, 40-0; the Eastside Banshees, 57-0; the South Side Irish, 52-0; the Charlotte Rugby, 44-10; and the Village Lions, 55-31.

Diverse group of players

The Tradesmen are looking to follow the example of the Detroit City Football Club, a grassroots soccer program that has grown in popularity. While the Tradesmen are serious rugby players competing on a club level, they’ve resisted taking the step to Division I because of the additional cost and travel involved.

Still, the players are serious about what they’re undertaking, despite their various careers.

“I’m a library director,” said Kirk Borgeur, the team president. “We have a school teacher, pipe fitters, chiropractors, business owners. They’re everybody and anybody who played in college and wants to play.”

The players range in age from 18-40, some of whom play on the Division III team and are looking to climb the ladder to Division II — or professionally.

The Tradesmen also find time for fun within competition, hosting visiting teams and footing the bill for the party, a tradition among the rugby leagues.

“There is a lot of beer involved,” Borgeur joked.

“And we’ll outdrink many beer-league softball teams,” Tocco added.

Bigger dreams

While most players foot the bill for their annual dues ($100-$200), they also are looking to find a better home field and get a sponsor to help with expenses.

Borgeur estimates that $20,000 would help sponsor the team, but the bigger dream is purchasing or leasing a bigger tract of land for a permanent home with two fields, a clubhouse and a training facility.

Winning the title could help bring more attention to rugby in the area — and getting a sponsor.

“I don’t want to jinx it, but (a championship) could really contribute toward maybe helping us get over that hurdle and maybe becoming the type of club that we ultimately want to become,” Elley said. “We actually have close to 50 players registered with us for last season. We have two full teams, with reserves.”

Eliza Howell Park is a long way from a championship venue, but it could become the home of champions.

And that would help bring some exposure.

“I believe there are thousands of rugby players out there who aren’t aware of the game and the opportunities that are available to them,” Elley said. “This is hopefully going to engage them and give the game some publicity it desperately needs.”

rod.beard@detroitnews.com

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Tempe Old Devils vs. Detroit Tradesmen

What: Rugby Club National Championship

When: 4 p.m. Sunday, Infinity Park, Glendale, Colorado

Outlook: The Tradesmen are in the championship game for the first time, while the Old Devils have reached the final twice the last three years.