Battered Gents to play for sixth title at home
Aspen Times Staff Writer
Battered and bloodied no matter: the Gentlemen of Aspen Rugby Football Club survived.
In a bloodbath of a match Saturday in the Bronx, N.Y., the Gents utilized all 22 players to beat the New York Old Blue 17-8 to advance to the USA Rugby National Championship for a sixth straight year.
For the first year, however, the five-time defending champs will be playing for the title on their home field, Wagner Park. Kickoff is scheduled for 2 p.m. Saturday against Belmont Shore, the No. 1 seed in the eight-team Premier League playoffs and the only team to beat Aspen this season.
“It’s a tremendous feeling,” Aspen coach Brian Going said Sunday. “The guys are stoked that we got through that battlefield [in New York]. Honestly, it was just unbelievable, blood and bandages everywhere. You’d think we were in the Vietnam War ’cause there’s lots of heads bashed and a lot of blood shed.”
Flanker Dougald Gillies scored Aspen’s only try of the first half, and kicker and back Mark Williams added five points – the 2-point after-try conversion and a 3-point penalty kick – to push Aspen’s advantage to 10-0 before the break.
“For some reason, I didn’t fear that we’d ever lose the game,” Going said. “But it was a tough encounter. Probably one of the toughest matches I’ve had to organize with regard to replacements. It was very delicate as the injuries kept mounting up.”
New York got on the scoreboard in the second half with a Brad Jackson penalty kick. Wing Bobby Lochrem then ran in Aspen’s second try of the day, and Paddy Shaw booted the conversion to boost the lead to 17-3. Glen Gawronski scored New York’s only try of the day in the final minutes of the game.
“It was a tough game, and we knew it was gonna be,” said Williams, a Gent since 1982. “[New York] didn’t necessarily care about the result too much; they just wanted to perhaps inflict as much punishment on us as possible. But the boys’ character came through. We just knew we had to play in Aspen” on Saturday for the U.S. title.
“New York came out all fired up, making huge hits, talking lots of trash, and we just stayed focused,” Williams continued. “We took our points when we needed them and put the game away.”
Several Gents sustained cuts, including second-row player Alec Parker, who now has a few stitches above his right eye, but no players were seriously injured, Going reported. (Or perhaps not enough so to keep anyone out of the lineup Saturday.)
“It was very emotional – you could tell when the guys came off the field there was no celebration,” Aspen captain and eight man Jason Walker said. “There’s enough guys who have been on board for all five championships, and they just know: There’s nothing to get excited about yet.”
Belmont Shore of Long Beach, Calif., Aspen’s opponent in the final, soundly beat OMBAC, the Old Mission Beach Athletic Club of San Diego, 34-6 in Long Beach on Saturday to advance. Belmont Shore enters the final game unbeaten at 8-0, while Aspen, the No. 4 seed in the playoffs, stands at 7-1.
During a regular-season game on April 27 in Long Beach, Belmont Shore beat Aspen 21-8. It was the Gents’ first defeat in more than a year, and they still haven’t forgotten it.
“The guys are quite pleased that we have to play Belmont Shore,” Going said. “I don’t think I’m going to have to do much coaching at all either, except maybe to slow them down. They’re ready to roll.
“I think [Belmont Shore] is going to be in for a pleasant surprise.”
“I think it’s going to do us nothing but good the fact that they’ve beaten us,” said Williams. “We’re right where we want to be against a team we want to be against.”
Last year, when Aspen won U.S. title No. 5 over OMBAC in Rockford, Ill., several players, including Williams, announced their retirements. However, all but one of those veterans rejoined the team after learning that Aspen would host the 2002 title game.
“That was the whole focus, the reason why a lot of us have come back,” Williams said. “Maybe we didn’t want to during the winter, but we did because it would be a nice way to get the No. 6. If you’re gonna do it, do it in Aspen.
“I think it makes it easier to play at home, no doubt, but it puts more pressure on us, too,” continued Williams. “But we’re the type of team, we’ve got the type of personnel that thrives on pressure, so I think it’s nothing but a bonus for us.”
“National championships, we’ve won five of them, and the town never really knows about them,” added Walker, the captain. “Now we’ve got one here. It’s unbelievable. It’s going to be great.”
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