Tradition with a twist
Kicking around the Gentlemen of Aspen’s indoor practice dome (otherwise known as the Cozy Point riding arena and stable) one recent Thursday night, Mick Melrose makes one thing abundantly clear: “We’ve won one preseason tournament, boys, and that’s nothing to get excited about.”
After drills like the “Circle of Death,” Melrose gathers the team. It’s a group with more new faces than old, including Melrose, a former Sydney Premiership flanker and the Gents’ new head coach.
“We’re terrible at sliding across the field to protect our broadside on defense. …
“Let’s start to run our angles sharper, no arcs or hoops ” do it with purpose. …
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“I’m gonna be pushing you as hard as I can. And if you’re not doing the same, I’ll be there. …”
As the new leader of an American rugby institution, Melrose doesn’t have much taste for local history.
“I know about the success, obviously, but that’s about it,” Melrose previously said of his association with the Gents. “Other than that, I didn’t know much at all, and I’m still learning now.”
Until last spring, the Gents were the undisputed champions of American rugby. With six consecutive USA Rugby national titles (titles Nos. 5 and 6 under the dual USA Rugby-Super League banner), as well as six consecutive Aspen Ruggerfest crowns, the Gents had established themselves as a dominant force in the sport.
Then came a loss in last year’s USA Rugby Super League tournament semifinals to eventual champ Belmont Shore Athletic Club of Long Beach, Calif. Soon after, longtime coach Brian Going retired.
Then came a truly stunning loss last September ” after a 20-0 lead ” to the Denver Barbarians, upsetting the Gents Ruggerfest winning streak.
“I haven’t asked too many questions, because I’m not here to take over for [Brian Going] or emulate him,” Melrose says. “Rather, just to help the club become a better side and go from there.”
On Feb. 28-29 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the Gents played on tournament grass for the first time in recent preseason history during the Sunshine State’s version of Ruggerfest.
After losing their opening game to Super League rival New York Athletic Club, 15-7, the Gents downed the Boston Irish Wolfhounds, 14-0. And with a 35-5 rout of Philly-Whitmarsh (another Super League rival) the following day, the Gents earned a slot in the tournament championship.
Facing New York Old Blue, a team Aspen beat in 1997 for the Super League title, and in ’97 and ’98 for USA Rugby titles, Aspen notched its first tournament victory under Melrose’s watch, 14-7.
“We had a tough one that first game in Florida, but it’s looking good so far,” said 2002 national championship MVP Isaac Mbereko after a recent practice session. “We’re always looking for big things, we’re always in this for championships, so we’ll see.”
But Fort Lauderdale’s Ruggerfest is really just a form of spring training for the Gents.
“In the fortnight before the Super League opener,” Melrose barks at the players assembled at Cozy Point, “we’ve got a lot to do.”
There are several familiar faces on the 2004 Gentlemen of Aspen squad, including the son of retired coach Brian Going, Rata Going, a fixture in the Gents backline since the team’s championship streak began; former U.S. National Team flanker Tasi Mounga; and former Zimbabwe National Team scrum-half Mbereko, often Going’s backline partner in undoing opponents’ defenses.
Sean Maguire, Juan Grobler, Chris Morrow, Simon Dogbe, Mark Wisroth and Fleming Trane are a few other returning veterans. And the rookies are too numerous to count.
“Lots of new faces,” says one Gent.
“Heaps,” echoes another.
Of the 29-man team that traveled to Florida, 10 players were “outright new” to the club, and 15 had never played with Aspen’s A-side in a Super League contest.
Veteran Mounga, one of Aspen’s most punishing runners and tacklers, puts it this way: “It’s a new style, a new game plan, a new young team and everything. The whole Super League is getting better and better, and we’ve kind of been staying the same, same style anyway. This team will be different.
“We’re totally different from a couple years ago,” he continues. “But they’re good changes. I think we’ll still be fun to watch.”
Melrose’s “new style,” he says, is only a derivative of the usual open-style, running game of Aspen lore.
“There’s very good players on the club and very good spirit on the club,” he says, “but we’re still in the process of working it all together. I brought in a lot of different systems and a style of play that was very foreign to them. They were very tentative at the start, as you would be. But in six weeks, since I’ve been here, they’ve come along quite well and picked it up quicker than any other teams I’ve coached.”
Melrose, who came to Aspen from Australia, played with retired Gents flanker Dougald Gillies’ brother Duncan on the Manly A-side, a team near Sydney. He most recently coached Manly.
“I’d been at Manly for four years, and coming overseas always interested me because once I did it as a player,” says Melrose. “Through my [Aspen] connections, I thought I’d apply for the job and see what happened. But I didn’t know much about the league, only that it was a national competition, and I knew something about how it worked.”
Since arriving in the Roaring Fork Valley, Melrose has spent most of his time training with the Gents in the riding arena.
“Trying to get our style of play right, that’s what we’re focused on right now,” he says. “From what I’ve been told, Aspen’s always been a running team and that’s not going to change. … The simple answer is that Aspen will still be a running side, we’ve got good backs and forwards, just with a few new twists.
“They all seem fairly hungry for success, which is a good thing,” he continues.
The Gents open their seven-game USA Rugby Super League schedule on Saturday, March 20, against the Potomac Athletic Club in Washington, D.C. On March 27, Aspen hosts the Olympic Club of San Francisco in a game likely to be played in Carbondale. This Saturday, March 13, the Gents travel to Denver to face the Highlanders in an exhibition game.
Tim Mutrie’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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