Gentlemen of Aspen hope Life doesn’t kill playoff run
Aspen Times Staff Writer
Beat Life to extend life: that’s the situation facing the Gentlemen of Aspen Rugby Football Club.
On Saturday at 1 p.m. at Aspen’s Rio Grande Park, the No. 4 seed Gents host No. 6 Life University in the first round of the USA Rugby Premier League playoffs. It’s the first postseason stop on the Gents’ journey to collect a record sixth-straight U.S. National Championship.
“Looking forward to it, training well, but there’s a bit of anxiety in the air to get this one tucked under our belt too,” Gents coach Brian Going admitted Thursday afternoon.
That anxiety stems from recent history shared by Aspen and Life. Two years ago, when the Gents played USA Rugby and Super League schedules (the leagues have now since merged into the USA Rugby Premier League), Aspen beat Life in a regular-season game en route to the USA Rugby U.S. national title game. And a week after claiming No. 4, Aspen met Life in the Super League final. Aspen ran into a rested Life team – two weeks to Aspen’s one – and lost the match; it still ranks among just a handful of defeats in USA Rugby or Super League that the Gents have suffered since opening play at the elite level in 1996.
In keeping with that story line this season, Aspen beat Life 47-10 in its Premier League opener in Marietta, Ga., on April 6. And while Aspen was roughing up Boston 78-14 last Saturday to finish the season at 5-1 and secure the No. 4 seed in the playoffs, Life was home in Georgia resting with the weekend off.
“They’re all aware of the fact that we can’t be complacent because of our previous win,” Going said. “We’ve got to address this match as if it were the first game of the season, and if we can, shut out the previous score and take this game as it is Saturday.”
The match will be preceded by an Aspen B-side match vs. Air Force at 11:30 a.m.
Since losing its only game of the season, 21-8 to No. 1 seed Belmont Shore on April 27 in Long Beach, Calif., the Gents have exploded for a combined 168 points in their last two games, while allowing just 24. However, those opponents, Boston and the Olympic Club Old Blues of San Francisco, managed just one win between them on the season.
Nevertheless, Going is pleased with Aspen’s progressive rise this season and, in particular, the level of play demonstrated in Boston last Saturday.
“The fluency and the way we played – we played some 15-man rugby and that’s encouraging,” he said. “We’re good at it and we’re capable of it, but we haven’t been doing it until recently.
“Seeing our players develop and improve, for me, that’s it. Like last week, they did the stuff we’ve been training – that’s a coach’s dream. They just might be listening to me after all these years.”
On Saturday against Life, Going was clear about what he expects from the team: “I want to see forward control. With the new forwards we’ve got in, I want to see dominance up front. I know our backs can function adequately if we can control it up front.”
Going admitted that the quest for No. 6 has been complicated somewhat by Aspen’s increased depth this season. Usually come playoff time, the Gents’ starting 15 is cemented in place. Not so this season.
Take the two second-row positions (the pair that backs the front row in the scrum), for instance. Former U.S. National Team player and Aspen High graduate Alec Parker rejoined the team midseason and made his first start Saturday at Boston, following a two-and-a-half year layoff from rugby related to a knee injury. Additionally, Gerhard Klerck, who nearly matches Parker at 6 feet 6 inches, logged his first minutes of the season at Boston after sustaining a shoulder injury in a March 16 exhibition match against the Denver Barbarians.
Add veteran Bo Buck to the mix, along with Fleming Trane and Mark Wisroth, a former tight end at the University of Wisconsin, and Going’s job becomes less enviable. And there’s a similar glut of talent elsewhere, too, particularly at the wing and flanker positions.
“It’s tough, but that’s why I’m here. I’m the most unpopular guy at 5:30,” Going said, referring to the announcement he would make at practice later Thursday evening, naming the 15 starting players.
“Our depth has improved and increased. They’re all fighting for spots right now. We’ve got two of everything, it seems, and that means our second-tier players are a lot better than previous years,” Going said.
“We’re coming along nicely, and if we all play to our ability, we’re going to be tough.”
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