Gents facing ‘match of all matches’
June 7, 2002
Every June for the past five years, the Gentlemen of Aspen Rugby Football Club has boarded a plane for destinations like San Diego (twice); Cincinnati; Manchester, N.H.; and most recently, Rockford, Ill.
And each time, the Gents have returned home USA Rugby National Champions.
This year, as the Gents look for a record sixth-straight U.S. title, Aspen’s opponent for the national crown, Belmont Shore of Long Beach, Calif., will be doing all the traveling, from sea-level no less. For the first time in the storied 34-year history of the Gents, Aspen is hosting the U.S. title game.
As usual, the Gents will arrive at the field together, but this time around, they’ll be on foot. After warming up at Paepcke Park, the reigning champs will make the short march over to Wagner Park for the 2 p.m. kickoff. Three undercard matches are scheduled to precede the main event, beginning at 11 a.m.
Forget Aspen’s annual Ruggerfest tournament, all 34 of them every September since 1968, Saturday’s match is the biggest rugby game ever to be staged in Ute City, perhaps any game for that matter.
“It’s going to be the match of all matches,” Gents coach Brian Going said Thursday.
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“The usual games the fans see, like summer games or Ruggerfest, it’s not quite our A-side, not a team peaking for this one game,” Jason Walker, the Gents captain, said. “But this is the national championship. They’re going to see us raring to go.”
The same can be said for Belmont Shore, an undefeated team that’s gunning for its first-ever U.S. title.
“We know what’s coming up with these guys,” Belmont president Doug Pye said earlier this week. “We’ve got an extremely rugged afternoon of work ahead of us.”
With Aspen’s home-field advantage, however, also comes pressure, specifically the pressure of being on display at full strength against a team as potent as the Gents. Belmont Shore, the No. 1 seed in the eight-team playoffs, enters the match at 8-0 on the season. Aspen, the No. 4 seed, stands at 7-1, with its only defeat coming at the hands of Belmont Shore, 21-8, on April 27 at Long Beach.
“They’re obviously playing for their perfect season, and we’re trying to play for history,” Isaac Mbereko, Aspen’s vice captain, said Thursday. “We’ve both got something to lose; it’s just who wants it more, really.”
Belmont Shore and Aspen both play a similar brand of rugby, a wide-open running game that involves all 15 players on each side. Both teams feature big, bruising forward packs and slippery speed demons in their back lines.
“I reckon we’re on equal pegging,” said Going, “so it ends up who’s smartest. I’ve tried to pick up on [Belmont’s] stronger points, and put people in to match their good players, and they’ve got plenty of them. It’ll be an even battle.”
“They’re on a roll because they’ve been winning, and that’s very, very important,” Going continued. “But we’re on a roll, too. We’ve been building and peaking for this match, and here’s hoping the boys can produce the goodies.”
Aside from home-field advantage, and the potential horrors of playing at 8,000 feet for flat-landers, Aspen enjoys a unique advantage over Belmont Shore: big-game experience.
“When it comes to these types of games, the main focus is defense,” Mbereko said, “and this is when the senior guys, the guys who have been there, sort of step up. It really becomes stopping the opposition, and if you can do that, you can do other things because you’ve immobilized them.”
Mbereko, the MVP from the U.S. title game last June in Rockford, Ill., added that the match will be decided by the team that does the little things well.
“If you’re competitive with rugby, you enjoy games that are really tight,” he said, “and that’s when basics come into play. Whoever does the basics properly is going to win. It’s like any sport, like free throws for instance, if it’s close, it’s going to boil down to the little things.”
In the backs, coach Going named Mbereko and Rata Going, his son, as players pivotal to Aspen’s success.
“Our defense revolves around Rata. He’s very strong and good at it, and he’s developed his attacking game as well,” the coach said. “Then you couple him with players like David Yavala, Damien Barr and Isaac [Mbereko], and you work your combinations and put it together. They have their work cut out, but they have the ability.”
Other backs who stand to figure into the action include Mark Williams, Aspen’s all-time leading scorer and a Gent since 1982; Bobby Lochrem, a Hercules with supreme jets; Paddy Shaw, a smart distributor and opportunistic runner; and Brian Hightower, Chris Morrow and Juan Grobler, three former U.S. National Team players.
Up front in the forwards, Going said Aspen will need big play from the experienced veterans, including hooker Ian Walker, eight-man and captain Jason Walker, second rows Bo Buck and Alec Parker, and flanker Dougald Gillies, all of whom played on Aspen’s first U.S. title team. Wayne Rogers, a former provincial-level prop from New Zealand, and Tasi Mounga, a punishing runner from the flanker position, will also need to contribute.
“The key there,” Going said, “is top performances from the experienced players, as well as impact players like Karl Siteine and Sean MaGuire and Mark Wisroth. Their role is just as important as the starting forwards.”
In the last week, Gents players and coaches say they’ve been approached by countless strangers, not to mention friends, congratulating them on last Saturday’s semifinal win at New York, and wishing them well at Wagner this Saturday.
“I went to buy paint today,” coach Going said, “and the whole paint store was buzzing, the whole store was wishing us luck, and these are fellas I’ve never seen before. I think if we get some hometown support, it’s going to be huge.”
“That’s really motivating,” added Mbereko, a former Zimbabwe National Team player who has helped Aspen win the last four U.S. titles. “Hearing that from people you don’t know, just a word or two of encouragement, it’s great.
“Some people might say it’s pressure, but I think it’s something to give you an extra edge, to know that your home is with you,” Mbereko continued. “We’re not just playing for ourselves, anyway; we’re playing for everyone. It’s Aspen, we all live here, and everyone can have a piece of it.”
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