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Tongan rugby players get probation, fines for fight

John Colson

Two rugby players from Utah were sentenced to probation and ordered to perform 100 hours of public service this week after pleading “no lo contendre” to charges of third-degree assault.

They also were charged $138 in court costs and sentenced to 30 days in jail, which Pitkin County Judge Erin Fernandez-Ely suspended pending completion of the terms of their probationary sentences. The will be on probation for a year and a half.

The ruggers, who speak very little English, must also pay the medical costs of the man who was hospitalized after the fight that got them in trouble.

The fight took place during September’s Ruggerfest tournament. Three players for the Utah Steelers were arrested for beating and kicking a member of the Denver Harlequins.

Of the three, only Keloveni Tonga, 36, and Feinga Valtohi, 27, appeared in court Tuesday. The third man, Ami Finan, 24, is to appear in court next week.

The three men arrested are all Tongan natives who have been recruited to play rugby for several Utah teams. Tonga is an independent, constitutional monarchy located in western Polynesia in the Pacific Ocean.

Police say the fight started when Denver Barbarian Brent Taylor, 30, was elbowed in the head by Finan in the closing moments of a game Saturday afternoon of Ruggerfest. Eyewitnesses said two other players from each team then joined in, according to Sandy Brownlee of the Aspen Police Department. “And then it emptied both benches,” she said.

From there, the details of the brawl are murky. “Even talking to the players is confusing, as far as who did what,” said Brownlee. “But what we do know is that Keloveni Tonga stomped or kicked Brent Taylor in the head.”

Witnesses said Valtohi, who was not playing in the game, jumped up from the Steelers’ bench and ran the length of the rugby field to “cold-cock” Barbarian Andre Blom, 30, hitting him in the head from behind.

Brownlee said the three Utah players admitted being involved in the fight, although Valtohi said he was trying to break up the battle. He said he charged in and started swinging only after he was attacked by Barbarian players.

According to statements made in court, Taylor sustained injuries that put him in the emergency room at Aspen Valley Hospital, resulting in a bill of more than $1,630. As part of the sentence, Judge Fernandez-Ely ordered that each of the Tongan players pay a third of Taylor’s medical costs.

She said the public service could be performed in Provo, Utah, where the men live. But proof of completion of the service must be sent to Pitkin County or an arrest warrant will be issued and the two will be required to serve out their jail sentences.

Neither Valtohi, who spoke limited English, nor Tonga, who spoke no English, had much to say during the hearing or afterward.

In a letter to the judge, Taylor said the Tongans are living in Utah at the invitation of the Mormon Church, which brought them to this country solely to play rugby for Utah. He maintained that the Tongans “should be deported and the Mormon Church held responsible for the individuals that they sponsor.”

But Ruggerfest veteran Bill Tomb, a former Gentlemen of Aspen player and referee, said he was satisfied that the sentence was “appropriate.”

“In my 35 years of rugby, that was one of the most disturbing incidents I’ve ever witnessed,” Tomb said of the battle at Ruggerfest. “It was offensive to the community.”

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Posted:Wednesday, October 25, 2000


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