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Gents taste rare defeat

Tim Mutrie
Aspen Times Staff Writer

In true dynastic fashion, complete with a tragic, tide-turning error and a comeback that came up just short, the Gentlemen of Aspen Rugby Football Club’s unprecedented national reign ended this weekend.

The most dominant team in modern U.S. history was eliminated Saturday, 25-20, in the semifinals of the USA Rugby Super League National Championship Tournament by undefeated, 9-0 Belmont Shore at Long Beach State University.

Aspen, 5-2-1, which won a record sixth straight USA Rugby national title last season, will not be playing for that title for the first time since 1997, the year the run began.

Belmont Shore, the runner-up to Aspen (in Aspen) last year, carried the day on the foot of U.S. National Team player Mike Hercus, whose boot accounted for 20 of Belmont’s 25 points. Belmont scored just one try, compared to Aspen’s two.

“And that one was the one we gave ’em,” said Brian Going, the eight-year Aspen coach. “It’ll break your heart, I tell you.”

The pivotal Belmont try came early in the second half as Aspen pressed deep into the Belmont zone, Going said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles yesterday.

Aspen was at the tryline, on the verge of scoring and regaining momentum, “but we spilled the ball and they ran it the length of the field, scored and converted,” Going said.

“It gave them a second wind kind of thing. Damnit!”

Both Going, the fiery New Zealander coach and former All Blacks player in the 1970s, and Isaac Mbereko, the former Zimbabwe National Team player and Gents captain, pointed to that Belmont try as the game breaker, and era ender.

“Everyone knew it was going to come down to who makes the least mistakes, and we made more, unfortunately. But it was a good game,” said Mbereko, a six-year veteran of the Gents backline. “Typical final-type playoff game, a bit scrappy, too.

“It wasn’t as if we were hammered. We just lost the game. We could’ve played better, we know we could’ve played better – it happens to everyone. It’s a new feeling obviously, but you’ve got to deal with it.

“You cannot win every rugby game.”

With a steady sea breeze backing Belmont Shore in the first half, Hercus kicked four 3-point penalty kicks. Aspen fullback Hayden Taylor notched one, and Aspen trailed 12-3 at halftime.

“The first half belonged to them,” said Going. “They got most of their points in the first half, and they used the wind to their advantage, kicking a lot of penalties.

“We all thought that they’d about had it at halftime and we came out with the wind and made a strong comeback and we could’ve taken the lead, we were pressing on the line, but we spilled the ball,” Going said.

Mbereko and Taylor scored tries for Aspen later in the second half, both converted by Taylor, and Taylor added an additional 3-point penalty kick. Late in the second half, Aspen trailed 22-20 but couldn’t muster any more points, or any more streak-saving heroics.

Hercus added another 3-point penalty kick with 30 seconds left.

“The feeling was when we came off that we could’ve won but probably didn’t deserve to win because we made too many errors,” said Going.

“We’ve accepted the fact that we’re out of it, like we’ve done our dash for the season, but there’s a lot of strong feelings about what direction we’ll take for a bounce back.”

For Aspen, it’s their first “big game” defeat since 2000, when the Gents lost to Life College for the Super League crown. Aspen had already won four straight USA Rugby national titles by then, and in 2001 the two leagues merged to form the USA Rugby Super League, a unified league of the nation’s elite teams.

Since the merger, Aspen won back-to-back titles (numbering six straight by the USA Rugby count, two-straight in the Super League). This was to be No. 7 (or No. 3, depending on one’s reckoning).

“Obviously, people are upset,” said Mbereko, “but everybody handled themselves pretty well. We were classy about it. We accepted defeat graciously, and in a good spirit. People are going to have to do some soul searching, and it’s a bit too early to tell, but once everything settles down, we get over it. When that happens I’m sure we’ll make some positive moves.”

Last week, Going predicted the winner of Saturday’s match would win the championship. And Sunday, with undefeated and also 9-0, OMBAC of San Diego beating the Chicago Lions to advance to the final from the other side of the bracket, Going stuck to his prediction.

The two top seeds face off Saturday in San Francisco.

“They’ll pull it off,” Going said of Belmont Shore. “They’ve got a good program, they’ve got some depth, they’ve got some very good players and they’re a good side. We can’t take anything away from them.

“For us, it was the fact that we made major mistakes and the fact that some of our stars were only average,” Going continued. “It’s kind of an end of an era but it’s not what I’d like to have printed. What I’d like to see is that it’s the start of a new era, if you like. We knew we were gonna lose someday. It was going to happen, but there’s a lot of things that can develop for the Gents out of this loss.”

Since the fall of 1995, when Aspen began competing at the highest level of rugby in the U.S., the Gents have posted an astounding record of 121-9-1 in USA Rugby and Super League games through Saturday. That includes USA Rugby National Championships in 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2002, Super League titles in 1997, 2001 and 2002 in its six-year history, and unified titles in 2001 and 2002.

Mbereko, the captain, asked to formally thank teammates for their dedication this season, a season that presented more injuries and setbacks than the Gents are accustomed to.

“We had a lot of injuries and had a lot of guys who stepped up and filled in,” said Mbereko. “And I’m thankful for that, for the guys on the A side and the B side. Those guys helped make us what we are this year, how we came together with all the injuries and setbacks. They showed they’re good club men and they deserve to be thanked for that.”

Tim Mutrie’s e-mail address is mutrie@aspentimes.com


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