Gentlemen of Aspen hope to escape from New York
May 31, 2002
Last June in Rockford, Ill., the Gentlemen of Aspen Rugby Football Club won a fifth straight USA Rugby National Championship.
Playing in front of about 100 fans on a field bordered by high-voltage power lines, an hour-and-a-half drive from Chicago, the Gents stomped the Old Mission Beach Athletic Club of San Diego, OMBAC, a team that had beaten them during the regular season.
Of greater importance now, however, is what happened on the sidelines during that game. Tired of small crowds and small-time neutral venues (like Rockford, for instance), the Gents persuaded league officials to allow Aspen to host the 2002 national title game. And that date – June 8, 2002, at Wagner Park – has resonated with the team ever since. The Gents, of course, must win Saturday at New York to ensure that the Aspen red and black is represented on one sideline.
“This is what you think about all season,” said Aspen vice captain and scrum half Isaac Mbereko. “People talk about being ready for it. Well, this is it. We’ll see if guys want it bad enough.”
Aspen, the No. 4 seed in the eight-team USA Rugby Premier League playoffs, stands at 6-1 on the season. Aspen’s sole loss came at Belmont Shore (Long Beach, Calif.) on April 27. Aspen’s opponent in the semifinal, the New York Old Blue, stand at 6-0-1, a tie with OMBAC being their only blemish, and entered the tourney as the No. 2 seed.
Meanwhile on the other side of the bracket, No. 1 Belmont Shore (7-0) hosts No. 5 OMBAC (5-1-1), which also lost to Aspen.
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“Just getting revenge on those guys [Belmont Shore], and on our turf, that should be enough motivation,” Mbereko said during practice Thursday evening at Rio Grande Park.
Aspen travels to New York this morning with kickoff slated for 4 p.m. New York time on Saturday in the Bronx. While New York and Aspen haven’t played one another in a number of years, Aspen expects to encounter big forwards and a forwards-oriented style of play.
“They’re noted for their forward power and eight-man style of rugby, which is based around the forward pack,” Aspen coach Brian Going said. “We’re going to exploit them out wide and see if they can match us for pace using the full width of the field.
“I believe we’ve got the personnel that can dominate up front in the forwards and in the backs. Let them worry about us.”
Despite Aspen’s experience with big-game situations, Going said there’s a nervous energy surrounding the team on the verge of U.S. title No. 6.
“It’s not exciting and it’s not fun. It’s hard work and there is a touch of pressure. But I feel the preparation is going along fairly smoothly,” he said. “Big-game experience is what we’re encountering now; a little mark up from the normal buildup. But we’ve got enough guys on the squad that have big-game experience, I feel.”
Mbereko, the MVP from the national title game last June, is one of them. Leading up to that title game, Mbereko couldn’t keep any food down for days, and Thursday evening he reported that a light breakfast that morning will probably be the last he’s able to manage before kickoff.
“You’ve got to clear your mind,” Mbereko said, “and naturally put everything we’ve worked on all season into play. At this point, it’s more mental than anything else.”
All season, coach Going has encouraged his players to relax, before games and even during games. It’s a stark contrast from the image of a football coach screaming at his players trying to fire them up, but who can doubt Going, the feisty New Zealander who has led Aspen to five straight U.S. titles?
“If we’re just nice and calm and cool, it’ll work in our favor,” he said. “If we get too uptight and wound up, we tend to make a few basic errors and worry about the other team’s pattern; it takes away from the individuality from each player. Whereas, if we can relax, it brings out our natural talents, and we’re pretty good in that department.
“Our training runs have been a mixed bag of fun and serious and constructive and fooling around,” the coach continued. “With the makeup of the Aspen players, they like to have lighthearted training sessions mixed with full-contact training, and we’ve been doing that.”
As for that date a week from Saturday, June 8, Going said it remains the unspoken goal.
“No one’s been told not to talk about it, but no one’s talking about it,” Going said. “We’re focused on this mission in New York.”
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