The Eagles have landed in Aspen | AspenTimes.com

The Eagles have landed in Aspen

Nate PetersonAspen, CO Colorado
American Eagles players soar for the ball. (Devon Meyers/The Aspen Times)
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ASPEN There is an adage among rugby players that a group of mates will always beat a team of superstars.It’s a saying that explains why, earlier this week in Basalt, the country’s best rugby players joined together at a local ranch to move some 400 bales of hay, lift railroad ties, drag tractor tires and run up a nearby mountain in search of coordinates plotted out on a map.The only balls players practiced with during the four-day sojourn were minuscule ones filled with paint- some 50,000 or so – which they fired at one another during a spirited paintball war.

For an official camp for the Eagles, the U.S. men’s national team, it was certainly odd that there wasn’t any rugby being played.Then again, if this team of American stars is to take its place among rugby’s elite at the upcoming World Cup in France in September, it won’t be because of the impressive individual talents. Their seasoned coach, New Zealand native Peter Thorburn, knows as much, which is why he scheduled the trip to the ranch – which former Gentlemen of Aspen Rugby Football Club president Andrew “Salty” Saltonstall owns.”In rugby, it’s a game where camaraderie, if you like, has a big bearing on it,” Thorburn said Thursday at Rio Grande Park as his team began the first of three days of traditional practice. “Guys will go to the wall for the guy alongside them if they’re friends. And it’s needed particularly on defense. I’ve been around rugby long enough to see things developing and jelling, and that’s what’s happening with this team.”

Something to proveThorburn assumed control of the Eagles in mid-April, and since then he’s stressed the importance of chemistry and character. He knows, having coached at various levels in New Zealand, including stints with the famed All Blacks – the world’s top-ranked team and the favorite to win in France – that his American players will be underdogs come September.To finish among the top two teams and advance from a pool that includes defending world champion England and world No. 3 South Africa would be nothing short of a miracle for the Eagles. That doesn’t mean that Thorburn’s players haven’t set their sights on doing so.”It’s just time to prove to the world that rugby in the United States is becoming a serious thing,” said Louie Stanfill, a 6-foot-3, 220-pound native of Sacramento, Calif., who plays open-side flanker for the Eagles. “It’s no longer left to be a slapstick sport where people go out and they booze and they kinda play. We’re here to compete, we’re here to work hard, and we want to be recognized as professional-caliber athletes.”

Stanfill said players have bought into Thorburn’s philosophy, which meant openly embracing the nontraditional training exercises he presented them with at the beginning of the weeklong camp. Players and USA Rugby personnel were broken into four teams to compete in challenges that required physical and mental fortitude – everything from joining together to drag a huge tractor plow to figuring out the most efficient way to move large objects across a flowing river.”It created a lot of bonding situations,” Thorburn said. “Situations where players were put under pressure to make decisions and do things as a team and as individuals.”The team also camped out at night in tents, another subtle way of building camaraderie among a diverse group that hails from all over the country and includes a handful of foreign-born players who have their U.S. citizenship.”I think everybody understood why we [camped out],” said Tyson Meeks, a scrum-half from Oklahoma who played on Aspen’s summer side from 2001-03. “We got a kid here from Brooklyn, and it was his first time camping out. I think everybody knew what the point of it was and went through and enjoyed it.”

Never give upStanfill said his team finished “respectfully last” in the team competition, but arguably got more out of it than the other groups. During Sunday’s orienteering challenge, he and his teammates got lost repeatedly and had to backtrack multiple times before finally finding the coordinates for which they were searching.It was a frustrating exercise, but one that came with a silver lining, said Fifita “Tasi” Mounga, one of those lost in the woods with Stanfill.”We were lost, but we never gave up,” said the nine-year national team veteran, who was a member of Aspen’s 2002 national championship team. “We never lost anyone, and we just took our time to get to the point, and we found it. We almost gave up at one point, but we went back and started over again and it’s a good thing, because you can never give up in a rugby game.”

“It was great because it showed us team rank almost, in terms of knowing who is in charge,” Stanfill added. “Who’s going to listen, and then execute? … When you get to this level, everyone wants to say something. There are too many generals, though, and not enough soldiers. So this was really good, because it forced us to take positions and follow through and accomplish something.”A small accomplishment among many, for sure. But added up, all of those little victories might equate to something considerable, possibly historic, in two months when the Eagles will have to go to the wall for each other against considerable odds.”There’s a long-term goal for the U.S., but for this year in the World Cup, I’d guess the No. 1 goal would be to compete,” said Jon Van Der Glassen, an Idaho native who has played rugby in New Zealand and France, and is currently with Santa Barbara’s club side. “We’re not going there to be like, ‘OK, we’re here, and we’re going to play matches and enjoy the World Cup because it’s a great experience.’ We’re going to compete, and we’re going to compete hard. We want to make our presence felt.”Nate Peterson’s e-mail address is npeterson@aspentimes.com


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