Down go the Gentleman of Aspen
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN – Their team name and jerseys might have been unfamiliar, but there was no mistaking those green socks.
Denver Barbarian players abounded on the Pro Leisure Tour All-Stars’ side during Sunday’s open-division Ruggerfest final against the Gentlemen of Aspen. There were both familiar faces and the physical play that has defined matches between the rivals in recent years.
Only the outcome this time was different.
The Gents squandered two leads and multiple scoring chances against the All-Stars, who continually applied pressure with a sound kicking game. Aspen mounted a late surge in the waning minutes of the second half, but came up six points short. The 30-24 defeat was the host’s first here since 2005, when the Barbos hoisted the championship trophy.
The Gents have won 12 of the past 15 Ruggerfest titles.
“It feels good to finally beat them,” said a grinning Mike Mangan, who played on Denver teams that lost to Aspen here in the 2008 and 2009 finals. “It feels satisfying.”
Added longtime Gents player Fred Waititi, who was on the field for the full 80 minutes: “It’s a different feeling for sure. We don’t lose many, especially not here.”
That much became clear as an uncomfortable silence accompanied the shadows that enveloped Wagner Park after the final whistle. Instead of discussing where they were going to celebrate, a solemn Aspen squad was left questioning what went wrong.
For that answer, the Gents likely will point to the kicking game. Spencer Scott missed four kicks during the first half – one conversion and three after penalties. Had he made each, the Gents would have led 14-10 at the break instead of trailing by five.
Maximo de Achaval had no such problems. After Aspen pulled ahead 12-10, on a try from Dennis Walker and a Scott conversion five minutes into the second half, the All-Stars’ steady kicker connected on three straight drop-kicks – the last coming from midfield – to give his team a 19-12 advantage.
After a Gents penalty midway through the second half, de Achaval extended the lead to 22-12 with a boot that split the uprights from a difficult angle.
“We came up against a good team,” said first-year Aspen coach Ryan Grobler.
De Achaval’s five kicks, which accounted for 14 points, “took us out of the game.
“The standard of rugby we’re seeing is getting better every year. It’s good for the tournament, good for the crowd and good for the town.”
The Gents trimmed their 10-point deficit in half when Hayden Horsford took a pass from Waititi and bulled his way in for a try with little more than 10 minutes to play. (Waititi helped set up the game’s opening try in similar fashion, feeding Merritt Johnson on the far sideline to give Aspen a short-lived five-point cushion.)
Five minutes later, an All-Stars player, who jokingly referred to himself as “P.T. Cruiser,” all but put the game out of reach. He scooped up the ball on a turnover, shed two arm tackles and bolted up the far sideline before leaping past the try line to put the visitors ahead, 27-17.
Hayden Mexted’s try and the ensuing conversion gave the Gents hope with about four minutes to play. A turnover soon after proved costly, however, as the All-Stars flooded Aspen’s zone and produced another clever drop-kick with little more than a minute left.
“It was a tightly contested game, and I think we did well against a good side,” Grobler said.
“It’s all part of the learning curve,” added Waititi, who played a total of nine games in three days with Aspen’s 35-plus and open-division squads.
“We have a good crop of new guys here. If this is what we’ve got at the start, it could be a good thing come the end of it.”
For now, the Gents will have to settle for being second best.
That is just fine with Mangan.
“We knew coming in that they were really good and played hard,” he said. “We’re so excited to win. … This is the best rugby tournament in America.”
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