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Gents knocked out in semis

Tim Mutrie
Gentlemen of Aspen eightman Tasi Mounga, right, takes a diving pass from teammate Justin Stencil during the USA Rugby Super League semifinals against Belmont Shore of Long Beach, Calif., Saturday in Newport, R.I. Aspen lost by one point, 9-8, and Belmont went on to win its second consecutive national title. Aspen Times photo/Tim Mutrie.
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NEWPORT, R.I. – Here in the yachting capital of the world, the loss of the Gents’ most veteran captain proved prophetic.Mark Williams, the team’s 44-year-old anchor since 1982 and all-time scoring leader, tore a right quadricep muscle in the 9th minute Saturday with the USA Rugby Super League semifinal tied 3-3, rending the Gents goal kicker-less for the duration. And it cost them.After three weeks of legal wrangling and five weeks without a game, the Gentlemen of Aspen showed the weariness of a club that booked its flight the previous Thursday afternoon. The Gents lost to the Long Beach, Calif., team, Belmont Shore, by one point, 9-8, on a trio of 3-point penalty kicks. Aspen scrumhalf Isaac Mbereko scored the only try.After the match Gents players equated the experience with playing the first game of the season. And, indeed, the Gents’ lineup was a hodgepodge and they looked sloppy and unbecoming at times in the first half.A messy, scrappy affair, a handful of Gents players actually thought they were leading until the bitter end – due to the kicker situation. “Didn’t we hit that one?” It was a loss that would be easy to make excuses for. Yet the Gents made none.”It sucks losing by one point and we’re disappointed, especially considering everything we’ve been through this season. But at least we got here. We don’t have any regrets. Credit to [Belmont Shore’s] defense,” said Aspen captain and back Juan Grobler.”I’m proud of the boys’ effort.”

Aspen averaged 55 points per game in their 7-0 dash through the regular season, but their last game was May 8 owing to a legal roller coaster over Rata Going’s eligibility. The team was disqualified May 27 and, finally, reinstated by a former Colorado Supreme Court justice last Thursday.Said Mbereko, the Aspen veteran and former Zimbabwe National Team player: “We cannot look back and say because we didn’t play for a month or whatever – we got a chance to play and we got beat. We’ve got to take it like men.”On Sunday Belmont Shore knocked off the other team that entered the final four undefeated, San Francisco Golden Gate, rallying to a 24-21 win for its second straight national title.”A good side beat us,” said Mbereko, who had picked Golden Gate over Belmont in the final. “We could make excuses, but a good team forces mistakes. And they did that [Saturday].”Aspen’s Williams, who has come out of retirement more times than Michael Jordan, booted a 3-point penalty kick from 25-meters out in the first minute of the match, giving the Gents an early lead. But Belmont Shore’s scrumhalf and kicker Lee Piena answered on the ensuing possession with a matching 3-point penalty kick. Piena then added another in the 20th minute, after Williams went down with a scream, to give Belmont a 6-3 lead.The overall scene of a bewildered Gents team, thrashing ineffectual at times and unable to manufacture offense with its usual ease, left players and coaches on the Aspen sideline cussing in the first 40 minutes.”We’re making mistake after mistake after mistake,” Gents president Andrew “Salty” Saltonstall said as he paced along the paint.Shouted Aspen coach Mick Melrose: “SETTLE down!”

And later: “We’ve gotta get through this half 6-3. Got to.”Aspen did manage to get through the first 40 minutes trailing by 3. And in the second half a rejuvenated Aspen side came out firing, reminiscent of the flashes of brilliance that marks any undefeated team. And while Belmont won the field-position war in the first half, Aspen won it in the second, despite a challenging, swirling sea breeze.But without a kicker – that is a “goal kicker,” specializing in conversions and penalty kicks – the Gents were also a team exposed, unable to capitalize on “gimme” opportunities.Sixteen minutes into the second half Mbereko punched in the only try of the game. Capitalizing up on a nice, flowing sequence that included several rucks and mauls, and inspired runs by forward Damien Flynn and finally Grobler, the captain, the ball passed into Mbereko’s hands and he rambled a few meters, spiking it down over the try line near the goal post for 5 points.Back Travis Butler, the stand-in kicker, then missed the 2-point conversion. So instead of a 10-6 lead, Aspen moved ahead 8-6.And after Piena boomed his third and final 3-point penalty kick in the 64th minute, Aspen created good chances to attempt penalty kicks of their own. They didn’t, opting for fruitless try attempts without a trusted foot to turn to.”I don’t know why they didn’t kick for points,” said Belmont Shore coach Matthew Webber, unaware of the hole in Aspen’s roster that Williams’ injury created. “Wouldn’t you?”Desperate, Aspen scrambled to reach the try zone in the final minutes, with punishing runners like Tasi Mounga and Nick Gregorski spearheading the assault. But Belmont Shore stood firm.

“Mistakes were made by both sides and you can’t blame the conditions; conditions were perfect,” said Belmont’s Webber of the pitch and day at Fort Adams State Park. “A very scrappy, very messy game. … But when it’s playoffs, it doesn’t matter how the result is secured – only the result.”We had four weeks off as well,” Webber added, “so there was rust on both sides. But I thought our defense held out superbly.”Aspen’s Rata Going, the backline veteran who was the subject of the eligibility controversy, was not even on the roster, primarily because Aspen needed to use its allotment of four foreigners in the forward pack. (And, secondarily, because of a thumb injury.) And that, combined with vacancies at other skill positions caused by injury and personal conflicts, left the legend Williams needing to step up and fill the void at flyhalf and kicker.”I gotta give Belmont credit,” said coach Melrose, “their defense was very good. We were attempting to get through it, but we didn’t do the right things to exploit it.”The team changed a lot in the last month and we had no games to work on it,” he continued. “But no excuses. Belmont put us under a lot of pressure in the first half and we haven’t had a lot of experience with that. It put us into a bit of a panic; it was energy sapping.”In the second half, we still had a chance, but for a couple of breaks. … I think it’s going to be a good learning experience for the boys. Overall, I think the club and the players handled themselves very well. I’m proud of all of them and I certainly can’t criticize the effort.”Belmont Shore won its first USA Rugby Super League national championship last season, upsetting perennial champ Aspen in the semifinals en route. In June of 2002, however, Aspen beat Belmont for its sixth straight national crown.Mbereko, who is the Gents’ resident poet-philosopher, summed up the season this way: “We’ve played well all season, we’ve come together as a team and they just played better. We had a good game plan and they were able to counter. It is disappointing, and it is rugby.”


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