Sullied Gents down Barbarians | AspenTimes.com

Sullied Gents down Barbarians

Jon Maletz
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN – Caked in dirt from their heads to their cleats, Gentlemen of Aspen players beamed Sunday as they took turns hoisting the trophy.

What a muddy good time.

On a soggy, crisp afternoon in which the rugby ball appeared as slippery as a bar of soap, the sidelines had to be repainted in the second half and Wagner Park looked more like a sty than a pitch, the hometown team prevailed once more. The Gents scored three tries in the opening half – one in the final minute – to build a 16-point halftime cushion over the longtime rival Denver Barbarians. Aspen cruised to a 39-20 win, clinching its fourth-consecutive open-division Ruggerfest championship.

The Gents have won 12 Ruggerfest titles in the last 14 years.

“Playing in the rain and mud, that’s fun rugby,” said Aspen’s Ata Malifa as he poured a water bottle over his head and scrubbed dirt out of his locks. “It’s a privilege. I’m so fortunate to be out here and be a part of such a great group of guys.”

Malifa, who plays with Belmont Shore (Calif.) of the Super League, intended to visit Aspen only as a spectator this weekend. But after a string of injuries, the New Zealand native, who is a good friend of Aspen assistant coach Andy Katoa, was pressed into duty.

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He made an instant impact. Malifa received a pass out wide deep in Denver territory 35 minutes into the match, shook off two tacklers and dove in for the try. Kicker Dave Maw split the uprights with the conversion to give Aspen a 12-3 cushion.

Twenty minutes earlier, man of the match Matt Doubek converted a try in the far left corner to help the Gents erase an early three-point deficit. Doubek helped set up the Gents’ final try of the half when he picked up a loose ball in the final minute and pushed it wide to Mick Hurley. Hurley drew a defender and passed off to Andre Nichol, who rumbled nearly 40 yards untouched for the try.

Maw, who made a penalty kick before the try, completed the conversion to stretch the lead to 22-6 as the whistle blew.

That lead could have been much more substantial. Multiple Aspen drives stalled in Barbos territory after failed lineouts, errant passes that sailed out of bounds and balls that slipped through the Gents’ grasp.

“We coughed up some scoring opportunities, dead-certain ones,” Gents head coach Fred Waititi said. “When you do that against a good side, you pay dearly for it. … In the end, it didn’t matter.

“In conditions like that, it helps to be going forward. It’s hard to turn when it’s wet and slippery. We were able to pressure them and get them going backward, which caused mistakes to get compounded.”

“It was pretty slippery. You had to catch the ball with your arms close to your chest in case it goes through,” Malifa added. “You can’t do much. You have to kick and rely on your defense.”

That defense was challenged in the opening minute of the second half. Denver went on the attack, scoring a try and conversion to pull within nine.

The Barbos would get no closer.

Louis Stanfil converted an Aspen try mere minutes later, then Simon Dogbe made a perfect pass to Chris Bowman, who slid across the try line and through the mud for a try 12 minutes into the half, giving the Gents a 36-13 advantage.

Malifa added an athletic drop-kick for good measure with 10 minutes to play, as the Gents came out on top in their latest bout with Barbos.

Aspen clinched last year’s Ruggerfest crown after an 18-9 victory over Denver. The two teams have clashed in the finals here 10 times since 1997. Denver last won in 2005.

“We’re a Division I club, and they’re in the Super League. We don’t get many opportunities to play the best teams in the country,” Waititi said. “This was our opportunity to show we can compete.”

“It was a typical Denver-Aspen game,” said Doubek, clutching the MVP trophy in his filthy hands. “Lots of hitting, lots of forward play. It wears you out.

“This is pretty special. Really special. … I’ll be smiling for a while.”

jmaletz@aspentimes.com