Gents unstoppable in claiming sixth straight U.S. title
Aspen Times Staff Writer
Writing history with bruising tackles and suffocating team defense, timely tries and Mark Williams’ boot, the Gentlemen of Aspen Rugby Football Club furthered its legacy Saturday as America’s greatest rugby dynasty.
In front of about 4,000 enthusiastic supporters at Aspen’s Wagner Park, the Gents utilized classic 15-man rugby to beat Belmont Shore of Long Beach, Calif., 34-23 to capture the USA Rugby National Championship for a record sixth straight year.
Demonstrating the experience and savvy that has helped establish the Aspen legend, the Gents effectively neutralized Belmont Shore, unbeaten prior to Saturday and the only team to top Aspen during the regular season. Aspen rookies Paddy Shaw and David Yavala scored first-half tries, and Aspen High product Alec Parker figured in on two pivotal plays that cemented the win.
“It was a team effort right through,” said longtime coach Brian Going. “That comes through from playing together, being together and bonding together, and being a bunch of guys who care for each other on and off the field.”
Aspen is the first team to win six straight USA Rugby national titles since the league was founded in 1979 (the Berkeley Old Blues won the first five), and the Gents are the first back-to-back Super League victors in its six-year history. (Prior to the 2001 season USA Rugby and Super League merged, so the nation’s elite ruggers now play for the dual title.)
Belmont Shore took a 6-0 lead in the first six minutes of play, on two penalty kicks from fly half Michael Hercus, but Aspen responded in a fashion befitting a champion team playing for its first U.S. title at home. In the eighth minute, the first time the Aspen backline touched the ball, scrum half Shaw scored a try to cap off a movement through at least four pairs of hands.
Williams, who has played in all six of Aspen’s U.S. title games, kicked the conversion to give Aspen a 7-6 lead. Immediately after, Williams added three more points on a penalty kick.
“This one was especially sweet,” Aspen captain and eight-man Jason Walker said. “You could tell when we got out there and [Belmont Shore] got up early; we looked at each other and said, ‘It’s OK, we’re not into it yet.’ There was no panic. We knew it was going to come.”
Yavala capitalized on solid Gents forward play in the 16th minute as Shaw sprung the ball weakside and found an escort in Yavala, the fullback. With one man to beat, Shaw dished to Yavala who danced through defenders and into the try zone. Williams, who was a perfect 6-for-6 kicking on the day, added the conversion to give Aspen a 17-6 lead.
“In the first half, we were playing what I call the uphill way,” Going said. “We wanted to put points on the board, and that’s what we achieved. When you’re playing a team like that, they get a bit demoralized when you’re putting points on the board.”
The Aspen defense shined throughout the match, especially in the first half as they immobilized, and deflated, the potent Belmont Shore attack. Center backs Isaac Mbereko and Rata Going, the coach’s son, set the tone for the Aspen backline, while forwards Bo Buck, Jason Walker, Wayne Rogers, Ian Walker, Tasi Mounga and Monte Earl met Belmont head on at the point of attack. Combined, the relentless effort barred Belmont from ever establishing rhythm.
“If we close down the midfield, the outside guys are going to get chances, guys like Bobby Lochrem, David Yavala and Juan Grobler. They were running circles around them because they had space to do what they do best,” said Mbereko, who also made at least three try-saving tackles.
“The victory was made in the tackle,” added Williams, the fly half. “We hit them hard and they couldn’t get any clean ball.”
Williams added another penalty kick in the 30th minute, before Belmont Shore responded with its only try of the half in the 34th minute by flanker and coach Matthew Webber. Hercus added the conversion to cut the deficit to 20-13.
In the very next play after the Aspen kickoff, Alec Parker, Aspen’s 6-foot-6 second row, single-handedly got those points back with a diving block of a Hercus clearing kick from the Belmont try zone. Jason Walker fell on the ball for the try, and Williams booted the conversion to give Aspen a 27-13 lead.
“Our defense was solid and sound,” coach Going said, “and then we had some individuals who played above themselves, like Alec Parker, like Mark Williams, never missing a kick, and Rata Going at midfield was as strong as an ox, and those are the sort of thing we needed.”
Belmont Shore cut the deficit to 27-16 just before halftime on a Hercus penalty kick. After the break Aspen took a conservative tact to maintain the lead, often utilizing Williams’ foot to clear the ball from the Aspen zone.
“In the first half, we definitely stuck to the plan,” coach Going said. “In the second half, we were a little wishy-washy, but each time we put points on the board it sunk them a bit.”
The dagger came in the form of a Parker try in the 56th minute. As Aspen and Belmont forwards battled for possession in the center of the field, Shaw again sprung the ball weakside to Mbereko, who was tackled along the east sideline. Parker, coming out of nowhere, scooped up the loose ball and scampered 20 meters along the chalk line to the try zone. With the Williams conversion, Aspen increased its lead to 34-16.
Belmont’s Hercus managed to break free for a try in the final minutes, cutting the lead to 34-23, but the game was already in hand for Aspen.
“Aspen’s a very, very good side and today proved it,” Belmont’s Webber said. “They’re clinical: they dictated the game and the result.”
For Aspen, the victory serves as a tribute to a continued commitment and uncanny ability to win, especially in big games. Since the fall of 1995, when Aspen began competing at the highest level of rugby in the United States, the Gents have posted an astounding record of 116-7 in USA Rugby and Super League games, including USA Rugby National Championships in 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2002, and Super League titles in 1997, 2001 and 2002.
“History’s being written,” said Walker. “It’ll take a lot to better this.
“It’s a great feeling to win No. 6 right here on Wagner Park,” he continued. “We said earlier in the day, ‘Every time we’re away playing in these championships, we’re like there’s our boys back in Aspen, there’s our wives and our girlfriends, there’s everybody back in Aspen, our little Aspen, let’s play for them.’ Today, we said, ‘Stuff it. Let’s be selfish. We’re here, everybody’s here, let’s win one for us.'”
For Williams, the game’s MVP at 42, and other players who have been on board for the six-peat, it’s been an unbelievable ride.
“We’re not just rugby buddies, we’re best friends,” said Williams, who joined the Gents in 1982. “Our children are going to grow up together, and we’ve grown old together as it were. To accumulate all that, and the sixth one right here, it’s very special. I never dreamed of this 20 years ago. We weren’t even in national competition then, and now to be a team that has won six straight is unbelievable.”
Rookies Shaw and Yavala, meanwhile, arrived in the past year clueless that Aspen even had a rugby team. Yavala, a Fijian, came to work with Snowmass Village-based Fiji Water, and Shaw, a New Zealander, came for the snowboarding. On Saturday, both demonstrated their worth on a rugby pitch, too.
“It’s been up there on cloud nine,” Yavala said. “I came here to work, and all of a sudden I’m playing with the best rugby team in the U.S. It’s amazing.”
After the match, several Gents veterans announced plans to retire, including Williams, Ian Walker and Dougald Gillies. However, considering the same players said the same thing after Aspen won U.S. title No. 5 last June in Rockford, Ill., there’s always a possibility they’ll be back in the red and black.
And besides, as Gents president Andrew “Salty” Saltonstall noted during the trophy presentation, “seven sounds better than six.”
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