Gentlemen tops at Ruggerfest
The Gentlemen of Aspen faced a familiar situation and foe in Sunday’s open-division Ruggerfest final.
While the Gents led the rival Denver Barbarians, 17-6, after the first half, first-year Aspen coach Steve Blair and his players avoided any premature celebration ” with good reason. The Barbos erased a 21-3 deficit in last year’s Ruggerfest and came back from 21 down to win in 2003.
Aspen wouldn’t let this one slip away. The Gents, on the strength of a staunch defense and agile backs, left little doubt as they outscored the Barbos, 15-0, in the second half and cruised to the 32-6 win.
Kansas City won the 35-and-older, Missouri the 45-and-older and Minneapolis the 50-and-older titles.
“It’s never easy to win under this pressure, but the guys were pumped up today,” Blair said. “We have some good competitors.”
The Gents stretched their lead five minutes into the second half. Aspen broke out of a scrum near the Denver goal line and passed the ball out to fullback Steve Newman. Newman, named tournament MVP, found a seam in the defense and dove over the touchline for the try. His conversion from an awkward angle split the uprights.
The accurate passing and speed of the Aspen backs culminated in another try minutes later. The Gents opened up a 29-6 advantage.
“[The Barbos] couldn’t cope with our pace out wide,” Blair said.
Newman capitalized on a free kick with 11 minutes remaining. The Gents defense did the rest. Aspen surrendered just three points during the match’s final 75 minutes.
“We really worked well together,” said Newman, who missed the season’s first two games with a broken wrist. “We played as a unit.”
After an Aspen penalty in the game’s opening minutes, the Barbos chose to go for points instead of challenge the defense. They converted the kick and took a 3-0 lead.
Denver put the squeeze on the Gents for the match’s first 10 minutes, Blair said. The Barbos used the strength of their pack to control the ball, push the Gents back and slow the pace. Then, Aspen managed to find some open space in the Barbos defense.
The Gents were off and running. Standoff Rory Wood ran the ball out wide and, as he approached the touch line, kicked the ball softly over the head of an oncoming defender. An Aspen teammate landed on the ball for the try, giving the Gents a 5-3 lead.
They would not trail again.
Minutes later, the Gents strung together multiple passes as they raced down the field. Alec Parker took the final pass near the right sideline and converted the try. Newman made the ensuing conversion.
“Once we got the ball into our hands and had players following the play, they just couldn’t keep up,” Newman said.
Wood showcased his speed with 10 minutes remaining in the first when, in much the same fashion as an NFL running back, he faked out a Barbos defender on a move to the outside then converted the try. The Gents extended their lead to 17-3. The deficit was trimmed to 11 minutes before the half on another penalty kick.
The Gents defense continued to apply pressure. Aspen, which surrendered 23 second half points to the Barbos in a 35-31 loss in last year’s final, held Denver scoreless during the final 40 minutes. The Gents were able to thwart the Barbos attack despite being a man down at one point for 6 minutes.
The Barbos were feet away from a try, but were turned away when an Aspen defender tackled the back out of bounds. The Gents, who beat Denver, 29-17, last Saturday in Vail, recovered the ensuing line-out. The Barbos also misfired on two free kick attempts.
“We were able to stop them with one-on-one tackling,” Blair said. “The defense is what I’m most proud of. They really helped turn some plays for us.”
The win is Aspen’s ninth Ruggerfest title in the last 11 years. The Gents and Barbarians have alternated wins the last four years and have met in the deciding game in six of the last seven years. In the event’s 39 years, Aspen has finished on top 16 times.
The tournament title trophy is staying home for at least one more year.
“We stayed disciplined, stayed strong and stayed focused,” Blair said. “It’s awesome for us to get this result.”
Jon Maletz’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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American giant slalom stud Ted Ligety won six times at Birds of Prey, be it five World Cups and/or gold in the 2015 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships, but we have to remember what a struggle it was for him to get there.