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Gents file suit to save season

Tim Mutrie

After another round of fruitless negotiations Wednesday morning, the Gentlemen of Aspen Rugby Football Club filed a lawsuit seeking an emergency restraining order that could restore the team’s place in the USA Rugby Super League playoffs.

The case of Karaan “Rata” Going and the Gentlemen of Aspen vs. USA Rugby and the USA Rugby Super League (RSL) was filed in Boulder County District Court late Wednesday, said Jon Velie, the Gents’ lead attorney.

The Gents are hoping a Boulder judge, as early as today, will grant a stay against USA Rugby’s May 20 ruling that disqualified Going, a Gents veteran, from his standing as a “three-year resident player.”

That ruling, upheld in a May 27 USA Rugby appeal hearing, in turn prompted the USA Rugby Super League (RSL) – a separate entity that defers to USA Rugby on player eligibility matters – to count six regular-season matches in which Going appeared for Aspen as forfeits, pushing the undefeated Gents out of the playoffs. The team is a perennial national power.

But with the RSL national championship semifinals slated for Saturday – Aspen was originally slated to host such a match – the matter has mushroomed into an ugly situation of pressing urgency.

Aspen not only disputes the merits of USA Rugby’s ruling – that Going played in one too many games in his native New Zealand in 2003 – but claims Going was denied due process to respond to the allegations. That would be a violation of USA Rugby’s own rules, according to Velie.

“We think we’re doing the honorable thing by defending our player,” Gents president Andrew “Salty” Saltonstall said Wednesday evening. “In America, we make a big deal about being innocent until proven guilty, and we don’t think Rata Going enjoyed those rights. Due process was not followed.”

Said their attorney, Velie: “We’re seeking the status quo prior to USA Rugby making its wrongful action against Rata Going. If there’s no ruling, Aspen is still in the playoffs.”

Meanwhile, officials from the USA Rugby Super League, who were not

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part of the investigation or ruling regarding Going’s status, have thrown up their arms in exasperation.

“The timing is very, very bad for rugby, for the sport, for the league,” Keith Engelbrecht, a representative from the Dallas Harlequins who also serves as the chairman of the RSL, said in a telephone interview yesterday. “This is just a very, very bad situation to be in. Today, what is it? Wednesday? We’ve got people boarding flights in 48 hours’ time for the semifinals … and the Super League can’t do anything. We’re not empowered to do anything.

“Be gentle on the Super League, man,” Engelbrecht added. “We’re not the crooks here. We’re just taking the brunt of it.”

The parties, including representatives from Aspen, USA Rugby and the RSL, negotiated once more in a conference call Wednesday morning. Nothing came of it.

“Their willingness to compromise was to get us to give in,” said Velie, one of three attorneys on the case for Aspen. “The irony here is that we are talking about a rule that has absolutely no purpose, and that they violated their own rules in enforcing it.

“Still, the issue is that there’s a rule, and they allege [Going] broke it. But there’s human beings who can testify that Rata Going only played two games in New Zealand,” Velie said, “and there’s no human being who can testify that he played three games. We can prove we can also succeed on the merits of this, as well.”

Doug Arnot, CEO of USA Rugby, conceded yesterday that the rule in question – regarding Going’s status as a “three-year resident player” – needs to be re-examined. The rule stems from an International Rugby Board (IRB) rule, as the world’s sanctioning body of rugby, that aims to bar players from “club hopping,” particularly in the world’s major leagues in England and the Super 12 of New Zealand, South Africa and Australia.

“When this thing is said and done, there’s a healthy discussion that should be had about the resident player status requirements,” Arnot said in a telephone interview from USA Rugby’s offices in Boulder. “The IRB has international rules, and some of those rules we must adopt … But whether those rules are appropriate for the Super League in the U.S. is certainly an appropriate question to ask.”

Arnot declined to comment on specifics of the case, but said USA Rugby officials will represent themselves in court, if a judge grants a temporary restraining order and sets a hearing. And the clock is ticking.

“We don’t have a legal team,” Arnot said. “We don’t have the deep pockets of the Gentlemen of Aspen. We’ve got five people who work in this office, and we’ll send somebody down there to represent us in court. And as they represent us in court, other pressing issues will have to suffer.”

Going, contacted yesterday by telephone, also declined to talk about the case’s specifics. However, the 29-year-old Kiwi did say, despite the current turmoil, he considers Aspen his home.

“I don’t consider myself a foreigner, even though I am,” he said. “My youngest son was born here, and my other boy has been here since he was 1. It’s a raw deal, pretty much.”

The son of longtime former Gents coach Brian Going, Going then shifted the focus to Aspen’s greater purpose this season, in lieu of a freak collision during a May 1 match at Boston that left Gents rookie Pat Culley paralyzed from the chest down. Culley remains in an Atlanta spinal cord rehabilitation center, still paralyzed. Going was on the field when it happened.

“I’m hoping things go our way,” Going said, “not so much for me, but for the club and for Pat.”

Greg Rocca of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Club is part of the RSL’s three-person management team, along with Engelbrecht and Tom Lyons of the Potomac Athletic Club. He said yesterday that the RSL will honor, and follow closely, the developments of the pending case in Boulder.

“We want to keep the playoffs intact,” he said. “And we’re going to obey any ruling that’s appropriate by a judge, that’s for sure.”

Added Engelbrecht: “Assuming Aspen can get an injunction and that USA Rugby is going to lie down quietly and let this happen, the Super League’s position is that we can’t do anything about it. But we will follow the rules.”


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