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Gents’ season done?

Tim Mutrie

The Gentlemen of Aspen Rugby Football Club is suing the national sanctioning body of rugby, hoping to forestall a ruling late last week that led to Aspen’s disqualification from the USA Rugby Super League playoffs.

Victims of a “witch hunt,” a team official said Sunday, the Gents plan to file suit in Denver’s U.S. District Court on Tuesday.

The lawsuit follows an appeal hearing Thursday in which the USA Rugby eligibility committee upheld its original May 20 ruling that Aspen used a foreign-born player improperly during the regular season. Then Friday the USA Rugby Super League – a separate organization governing actual play in the league – ruled that all six of Aspen’s games in which the player, Rata Going, appeared would be forfeited.

So instead of sitting undefeated at 7-0 after the regular season with the No. 1 seed in the playoffs on the eve of the Final Four, Aspen, the winner of six consecutive national titles from 1997 to 2002, saw its record toppled to 1-6, out of the postseason picture.

“There’s a bit of a witch hunt out for Aspen rugby,” said club spokesman Dougald Gillies, “and certain elements in Super League have been after Aspen rugby for some time.”

The ruling marks the first time a player has been “caught” for an eligibility violation in the seven-year history of the Super League, said league spokesman Tom Lyons on Friday, and the first time a club has been disqualified on those grounds. (In 2001, the Super League merged with USA Rugby’s top-tier league, becoming the USA Rugby Super League, or RSL.)

And the ruling comes during the same month that three other RSL clubs, including the Denver Barbarians, voluntarily withdrew from the postseason after completing the seven-game regular season – reportedly because they could not provide documents to support some players’ eligibility.

“That was a matter of paperwork,” said Alex Goff, editor of the rugby Web site http://www.goffonrugby.com.

Now in light of Aspen’s disqualification, the timing and scope of the “RSL eligibility issue,” Goff, for one, finds interesting.

“I don’t think it’s a conspiracy theory,” he said Sunday, “but this has been something hovering over American rugby for decades. How do you use and manage non-American players? The rules have been inadequate. That is an enormous gray area in the sport at the moment.”

Aspen may also be the target of a whistle-blower, fueled by what Goff called “widespread resentment.”

“The thing Aspen does is bring in a lot of players from overseas, and it opens up a whole can of worms about how some [opponents] feel about bringing players in to win … That drives them crazy,” Goff said. “And I think those rumblings have been there for several years. That it came down on Aspen now was probably precipitated by what happened with the other [disqualified] clubs.”

The alleged infraction centers around Going, a veteran Gents back, and the complex rules that govern the status and eligibility of non-American players. Going, a native New Zealander and son of longtime former Aspen head coach Brian Going, has been a fixture in the Gents’ backline since the national-title streak began.

Super League rules stipulate that teams may include only four “non-resident players,” (foreign-born or without citizenship or green card) on the 23-man roster for any given game. But Going, like many Aspen transplants playing for the Gents, had been granted “three-year resident player” status by USA Rugby, meaning he counted on the roster as American stock.

But USA Rugby officials allege that Going played with another club in New Zealand in 2003 – three games, one over the two-game overseas limit in RSL rules – and thereby revoked his status as a “three-year resident player” retroactive to June 2003, according to Gents officials. With that action by USA Rugby, the RSL then counted Going’s games for Aspen as forfeits because the team carried one too many foreigners.

According to a written statement from the USA Rugby Super League on Friday, “a challenge was brought to the RSL, approximately two months ago, regarding the qualification of [Going].

“RSL directed that this challenge go to USA Rugby, as it was the administrative body that approved and issued ‘three-year resident player’ status.”

Tom Lyons, one of three managers of the USA Rugby Super League, said the RSL was not involved in the investigation, ruling or appeal, and that it was handled entirely by USA Rugby. “I wasn’t a party to that action,” said Lyons.

Wendy Cook, an official from USA Rugby, declined to comment on the matter on Friday, referring all questions to “the Super League person,” meaning Lyons.

But Brian Lowe, media relations manager for the RSL, said the league is clamping down. “The league got more serious about enforcing this year,” he said, “and that’s why people are getting called out.”

Gents officials say they have been denied due process and learned of the investigation four days before the ruling was handed down. The club hopes to get an injunction against the USA Rugby ruling, which would reverse the RSL’s disqualification.

“Basically, they received an e-mail from a guy calling himself a representative of a club from New Zealand, and on the basis of that e-mail they found Rata Going guilty and suspended him,” said Aspen’s Gillies, a former Gents player and member of the club’s board.

“Five or six days later, they also claimed to find some evidence. … But similar to common law, you can’t suspend somebody without letting them respond and know the allegations against them, and in doing so [USA Rugby] has violated some of their own rules.

“They claim Rata played three games in New Zealand in 2003… He played two,” Gillies added.

Meanwhile, the RSL semifinals are slated for Saturday, with a newly shuffled lineup due to the loss of a quarter of the teams for eligibility issues. Aspen’s head coach, Mick Melrose, says he’s preparing for a match on Saturday.

“I don’t know if it’s selective enforcement or not,” said Goff, “but anytime you bring in talent, you’re going to be scrutinized more. When this happened, well, it’s not a surprise. But that’s not to say that Aspen has won championships because they’ve imported talent.

“It’s because everything from their management to their homegrown talent is the best.”


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