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San Mateo test ahead for Gents

Dale Strode

The road to a national championship gets rougher and rougher every year.

And when you’re the two-time defending national champions in search of a third consecutive title, the road is filled with bigger – and faster – roadblocks, week after week after week.

The Gentlemen of Aspen, the USA Rugby two-time national club champions, will head to Cincinnati today to face yet another challenging roadblock as they open play in the final four of U.S. club rugby.

Playing in the final four for the fourth consecutive year, the Gentlemen will face perhaps, their toughest semifinal opponent in the upstart San Mateo Rugby Club. The Saturday semifinal will be followed by the Golden Gate vs. Old Blue of New York matchup among the other final four teams.

But rugby followers nationally are looking to the Saturday matchup between the Gentlemen of Aspen and the San Mateo club as the key contest of the final four.

Both Aspen and San Mateo featured talent-laden lineups with premier American and international players.

Both clubs, actually, have been known for extraordinary rugby talent. Explosive lineup And certainly the explosive San Mateo club has been considered among America’s best even though the California club has had its organizational run-ins with USA Rugby.

Paperwork snafus and club financial problems kept San Mateo out of the national championship picture in full-side rugby in recent years.

But in national 7s play, San Mateo has dominated – winning consecutive national 7s titles in 1997 and 1998.

The Gentlemen of Aspen won the rugby full-side national titles in 1997 and 1998.

And both teams feature rosters filled with U.S. Eagles and other players with international and World Cup experience.

U.S. Eagle winger Vaea Anitoni leads the talented Tongans, who form the heart and soul of the San Mateo club, according to team manager and prop Chris Hacker.

“I think it’s a combination of our backs and our forwards this year,” Hacker said of the San Mateo team’s success in the national playoffs.

“We do have one of the best back lines in the country,” he said, mentioning Anitoni as well as scrum half Vuka Tau, who plays on the national 7s team for the United States.

Willie Mahoney, the No. 8 for San Mateo, also is a veteran of the U.S. Eagles 7s team.

“We’re not real big,” Hacker added, “but we’re tight and we’re strong and we like to pound, pound, pound.”

Then then try to work the ball out to the exceptionally fast and elusive backs.

Hacker said the San Mateo lineup includes Alipate Haunga and Solomone Fangudo up front along with Felipe Kamakorewa of Fiji.

Kamakorewa was a visiting player last summer with the Defiance Rugby Club in Glenwood.

He likely will line up at prop for the San Mateo club on Saturday in the national USA Rugby semifinal against the Gentlemen of Aspen.

“Everyone knows us as a 7s team,” Hacker said of the club coached by Hywel Ap-Rees.

“But a motivation for us … is that people don’t realize we could’ve come this far before, but financially we just couldn’t make it,” he said of the club’s fiscal struggles and their inability to meet the financial obligations of extensive national travel.

In many ways the club was in a similar position to the Gentlemen of Aspen before the Aspen club integrated with USA Rugby and entered the national playoff picture.

“We don’t have sponsors. The guys basically pay their own way,” said Hacker, who added that the San Mateo club sees the Gentlemen as the ultimate national challenge in full-side rugby.

“You know Saturday usually decides who wins the national championship,” Hacker said. “So … we kind of look at it as it’s between us and them,” he said of Saturday’s critical national semifinal against the Gentlemen of Aspen.

The Gentlemen will counter San Mateo with their own contingent of U.S. Eagles, including the likes of Jason Walker, Alec Parker, Chris Morrow, Bill LeClerc, among others. Coaching experience With Brian Going calling the shots at the national final four for the third consecutive year, the Gentlemen also enjoy the experience of their coach as well as the others.

Many of the Gentlemen have played in all of the USA Rugby national final fours since Chicago in 1996.

The Gents won their two back-to-back national titles in 1997 and 1998 in San Diego, after finishing third in Chicago.

In 1999, the Gents will head to Cincinnati with the experience and Gents’ experience of players like Robbie Dawe, Dougald Gillies, Bob LeClerc, Ian Walker, Lance Sigley, Paul Gibson, Tomasi Takau, Billy Nashwinter and a host of others.

The winner of the Aspen-San Mateo game on Saturday will play the Golden Gate-Old Blue New York winner on Sunday.


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