Gents edge closer to another national title
Aspen Times Staff Writer
It wasn’t the usual, dominating performance that’s come be expected from the six-time defending USA Rugby National Champion Gentlemen of Aspen Rugby Football Club, but it was good enough.
Despite being dealt a pair of defeats in five matches at the Western Rugby Sevens Championships Saturday at Englewood High School near Denver, the Gents are headed to another U.S. national championship just the same.
The Denver Barbarians topped Aspen 35-28 for the Western Sevens Championship title, but Aspen, after regrouping from a loss to the Austin, Texas, Rugby Club earlier, earned the second available berth to the national championship just by reaching the finals.
Aspen, the most decorated rugby team in U.S. history in the regular 15-man brand of the game (including the U.S. title run), has only advanced to the U.S. Sevens National Championship once before. That was some seven or eight years ago, according to player/spokesman Andy Katoa, when the Gents were eliminated in the first round. And until this summer, Aspen had ceased competing in the sevens game – which features only seven players a side versus 15 and seven-minute halves versus 40-minute halves in the regular game – and instead focused the U.S. titles in the regular 15-man version.
“It was a great experience for us to play some high-level competition,” Katoa said Sunday. “We know what it takes to be successful at 15s and now we know what it takes in sevens, and that’s pretty much committment.”
“Everyone knows we’re trying to make a run at sevens and everyone wants a piece of us. It’s pretty exciting.”
Carrying a roster of 12 players, all of whom figured into the action Saturday, Aspen opened the tournament with a win over the Denver Barbarians’ B-side. In Aspen’s second match of the day, the Austin ruggers captilized early on Aspen mistakes and earned the victory.
“We were flat and they caught us off guard, scored some early tries and then played scrappy defense while we tried to get back into it,” Katoa said. “You’ve got to give them credit though – they played scrappy rugby and we paid the price.”
Aspen rebounded with a win over the Dallas Harlequins and then topped a team from Houston, Texas, to secure a spot in the finals against the unbeaten Barbarians’ A-side, as well as the berth to the U.S. Sevens National Championship. The 16-team tournament is scheduled for Aug. 10-11 near Philadelphia.
“The Austin and Denver games were learning experiences,” Katoa said. “We got exposed a little bit, showing that our fitness isn’t what it should be. We know we’ve got a lot of work to do between now and nationals, and that means getting in better physical condition.
“The boys played well, and our skill level was a lot higher than a lot of the teams, but we were lacking in the conditioning phase of the game. A lot of times, and you’ve got to give the boys credit, we just played with skill and heart.”
Backs Rata Going and Isaac Mbereko – “That combination really kept us together,” Katoa said – and forwards Karl Siteine and Duncan Gillies were instrumental to Aspen’s success, but “all 12 guys contributed, and it’s going to take all 12 if we want to be successful next month,” he said.
“We’ve got so much talent here, lots of sevens skill talent, that it’s quite a different challenge for us now,” Katoa added. “It’s just a different avenue to show off Aspen rugby, and it’s exciting but it’s going to take a lot of work.”
“We’re prepared to work our tails off to get ready between now and then, and I think we’ll be OK. I think we’ll surprise a few people at nationals.”
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The National Standard Racing’s Platinum division finals were a family affair at Snowmass on Saturday. Siblings appeared on the start lists for the head-to-head, bracketed finals and families linked up to form intergenerational cheer squads.