Gents face Belmont in final 4
Aspen Times Staff Writer
For the first time this season, the Gentlemen of Aspen are underdogs.
Therefore the defending U.S. national champion ruggers, questing for a unprecedented seventh-straight title, must travel in this – the final-four – weekend of the USA Rugby Super League Tournament.
Aspen, 5-1-1 on the season, faces undefeated Belmont Shore, Calif., at 3 p.m. Saturday at Long Beach State University, while OMBAC of San Diego, the other 8-0 club remaining, hosts the 7-1 Chicago Lions.
Belmont Shore’s last loss, in fact, came right here in Aspen at Wagner Park. The Gents – underdogs, on paper, in that match – put on what the Belmont player/coach later termed a “clinical” effort. The Gents won 34-23 to capture U.S. title No. 6.
Longtime Gents coach Brian Going, the helmsman of the national title run, said Thursday he expects a tougher challenge Saturday.
“They learned a lesson last year about how to play winning footie,” Going said. “I think they’re going to be a better unit. I’m expecting them to be real solid.”
“My opinion is, if we can beat Belmont Shore we will win the seventh title. I’m not saying that boastfully; I’m saying it because I feel they are the toughest opponent we’ll be going against.”
Belmont Shore stormed back to the final four untouched, while Aspen’s journey was turbulent, at least compared with years past. The Gents lost at OMBAC on March 29, then tied the Dallas Harlequins in the Lone Star State April 26.
Aspen rebounded with a blowout win over New York Athletic Club in the regular-season finale May 3, but it wasn’t until May 17, in the opening round of the tournament, that Aspen seemed to find its playoff rhythm in a 34-16 win over San Francisco’s Golden Gate at Rio Grande Park.
“After we played Golden Gate we realized that our forward pack was more solid than we thought it was. The guys stepped up big time there. Golden Gate was boasting the biggest pack in the U.S.A., and we drilled them, so we’re hoping for the same versus Belmont Shore,” Going said.
Aspen has weathered its share of injuries, too, contributing to the stumbles, Going said, because of rotating lineups and unfamiliar combinations. Aspen enters Saturday’s match still snake bitten.
“We’ve been stricken with injury, unfortunately, and to key players,” Going said.
Regular starters Brian Hightower (broken leg vs. Golden Gate) and Dean Walsh (broken jaw vs. NYAC) will not play, and Chris Morrow, another back, is questionable with a torn calf.
“On the positive side, we’ve got Alec Parker and Jason Walker,” Going said.
Parker is the Aspen native who also plays with the U.S. Team, a factor that limited his action with Aspen this season. Whenever’s he’s in the red and back, however, he is a ferocious second-row and dominating presence.
Walker, the former captain and eight-man anchor of all six national championship teams, has been out of the regular lineup this season in order to build a house. He will, no doubt, be looking to move a house Saturday.
U.S. Team flanker Tasi Mounga is also slotted to start for Aspen, along with flanker Sean Maguire, veteran second-row Bo Buck, and props Monte Earl and Damian Flynn.
“While our forward pack is solid, we’re light in the backs,” Going said. “We haven’t got an excessive number of backs available.”
The back line will include captain Isaac Mberko, a versatile runner and defender, and fullback Hayden Taylor, a former Super 12 player from New Zealand. Veterans Juan Grobler and Bobby Lochrem will also figure into a slot on the back line.
Going said the team has talked little of last June’s win over Belmont Shore. They expect a different beast on the Pacific Coast.
“I think for Belmont Shore, it’ll be more of a help to remember that game,” Going said. “For us, we want to forget about it. We were playing at altitude, we were on our home ground, and we had players to bring in. But that’s all leveled out now because we’re going to L.A. to play at their place, and they’re hard to beat at their home ground.”
The U.S. national championship final will be held Saturday, June 7, in San Francisco.
Primoz Roglic must find a way to stop his Slovenian rival Tadej Pogacar from winning the Tour de France for the third straight time. Pogacar is the firm favorite to win the three-week race, which starts in Denmark on Friday.
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