Even off top form, Gents beat Philly
Aspen Times Staff Writer
Though not a crisp, polished performance that’s come to be expected from the five-time defending U.S. national champs, the Gentlemen of Aspen Rugby Football Club cruised to victory Saturday 49-8 over Philly-Whitmarsh in Carbondale.
Two first-half tries from fullback Chris Morrow and two second-half tries from wing Brian Hightower, along with a 7-for-7 effort from flyhalf Mark Williams in kicking the 2-point after-try conversions, cemented the victory for the Gents in their USA Rugby Premier League home-opener at Roaring Fork High School.
The rout, however, was not as thorough as the lopsided score suggests. Aspen’s offense failed to settle into a rhythm against the Philadelphia-based ruggers, a problem compounded by untimely dropped passes.
“The coach is not happy. Everyone is not happy. This is just not good enough,” said scrumhalf Isaac Mbereko, the vice captain. “It’s a home game. We should be playing a lot better than this.
“People were expecting them to just lay down because of the altitude, but they didn’t. They played hard the whole way. It turned out to be a good game for them – an eye-opener for us.”
With the win, Aspen improved to 2-0 on the season in Premier League play. Philly-Whitmarsh slipped to 1-3.
“We managed to get a few points on the board but it wasn’t as good as I hoped,” said Gents coach Brian Going. “We can do a lot better if we string passes together, basic passes.”
“We struggled a little bit basically because of own mistakes,” added eight-man Jason Walker, the captain. “We never really got our backline away. When we did we scored, so it cost us a few opportunities. But they got in there and squandered all our ball and I’ll give them credit for that.”
Philly-Whitmarsh broke the ice with a 3-point penalty kick in the 8th minute. Aspen’s Morrow responded with two tries in the 10th and 21st minutes, and flanker Dougald Gillies punched in Aspen’s third try, after taking a diving dish from Mbereko near the try line, just before halftime to stake Aspen to a 28-3 lead.
Philly-Whitmarsh “didn’t let us cruise too easily. They were motoring us down and trying all kinds of tricks. And a lot of our key players made these niggly mistakes. I though Mark Williams kicked well but the other part of his game was fairly ordinary. Same with Isaac. When you have two of your guns having ordinary days, it makes it a little difficult,” coach Going said.
Philly-Whitmarsh scored its only try early in the second half, outrunning Aspen defenders in a chase for a pooch kick in the try zone.
Making his Gents comeback following two seasons on the sidelines with a knee injury, Brian Hightower added two insurance tries in the 50th and 66th minutes. As Philly-Whitmarsh was pushing deep into the Aspen zone, Aspen’s Paddy Shaw scooped up a loose ball out on the wing and passed off to Hightower. Hightower gathered the pass on a dead-sprint and raced about 90 meters the other way for his second score.
“Paddy made a great play,” said Hightower, a Gent since 1993. “He did most of the work. All I had to do was run the length of the field – and it felt more like 190 meters.”
“I’m glad to be out here. It’s nice to run with the guys again. We spent the better part of ten years together and I really missed being out there the last couple years. At this point, every time you step on the field feels like a bit of a victory,” continued Hightower.
Aspen’s Juan Grobler set up Aspen’s final try by lofting a kick into the Philly-Whitmarsh try zone. Shaw won the footrace and pounced on the ball for Aspen’s seventh try of the day.
Philly-Whitmarsh’s player/coach David Niu said his team gained valuable experience in the defeat.
“It’s not like we came out and rolled over against an average team. It’s the best team in the nation, some of the best footballers in the country, so there’s not much you can be too frustrated about,” Niu said. “We learned some lessons from these guys about how to move the ball and develop things around the field.
“Aspen’s by far the most dangerous team you play. From our perspective, when we look at the schedule, it’s like, ‘We’re in trouble there and we’ve got to do our best against some other clubs.’ That’s being realistic. Try to keep the scores level in the other matches, take a bit of beating here, and do what you can.”
For Aspen, the heart of the season is just beginning. On Saturday, Aspen hosts its most hated (and respected) rival OMBAC, the Old Mission Beach Athletic Club team from San Diego. (The venue will be determined later this week.)
OMBAC dealt Aspen one of its worst defeats in team history, 32-5, in the opening Premier League game of the season last March. The loss haunted the seemingly indomitable Aspen team throughout the season, until the vengeful Gents got another crack at OMBAC. The meeting came in June of 2001, near Chicago in the USA Rugby Premier League National Championship game, and resulted in a 56-21 Aspen victory for the fifth-straight national title.
“It’s always good if you can see mistakes and act on them. It’s a bad sign when you think you’re always playing a perfect game,” Mbereko reasoned after Saturday’s win. “This is a good sign that everyone knows we can do better. I’m sure the guys will put the work in and you’ll see a different team next week.”
@ATD pullquote1:”It’s a bad sign when you think you’re always playing a perfect game.”
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