Powerhouse Gents rugby surprised by Belmont Shore
Aspen Times Staff Writer
Following the Gents’ third straight victory last week, Gentlemen of Aspen Rugby Football Club coach Brian Going conceded that his team was beatable.
“We are beatable, and we need to dig deep to stay on top,” Going said after Aspen’s narrow 23-10 win over OMBAC (Old Mission Beach Athletic Club of San Diego) in Aspen on April 20.
Whether the charismatic New Zealander meant it as an honest appraisal of Aspen’s talent this year in its run for a sixth straight U.S. championship or as an inspirational dig directed at his players isn’t clear. Either way, Going was right.
On Saturday in Long Beach, Calif., Aspen was dealt its first loss in more than a year, 21-8, courtesy of Belmont Shore. The reigning national champs dropped to 3-1 in USA Rugby Premier League play on the season, while Belmont Shore emerged as the only unbeaten (or untied) club in the 17-team league at 5-0.
Veteran Aspen fly half Mark Williams, who has played with the Gents since 1982, said Belmont Shore dominated, particularly in the forward pack and in set pieces like lineouts and scrums.
“We haven’t been dominated like that,” Williams said Monday, “not as long as I can remember.”
“They just absolutely pummeled us in the lineouts and the scrums, and that’s how they won the match,” echoed Going. “They had us on our back foot the whole day. We don’t want to point fingers at anyone – it was a team effort – but it was difficult to combat, and it was only tougher as their confidence grew.
“But,” Going added, “if that’s Belmont Shore’s best, look out.
“We are a team that’s beatable, and it’s happened now. But I think it’s a good thing. We’ll be firing now.”
While giving full credit to Belmont Shore – “They’re a good team, and they deserved the victory,” Williams said – Aspen lost the game on its own merits.
“We played as poorly as we can possibly play,” Williams said, “and it’s unusual to have 15 players playing that badly at the same time.”
Williams singled himself out as one of the perpetrators. Prior to facing Belmont Shore, Aspen’s all-time scoring leader hadn’t missed a single kick in the Gents’ three victories this season.
On Saturday, Williams put Aspen’s only points on the board in the first half with a three-point penalty kick. Belmont Shore scored a try earlier in the half as the Premier League’s leading try scorer, Alex Hammill, scooped up a pooch kick from fly half Mike Hercus and ran it into the try zone. Belmont Shore led 5-3 at the half, though Williams shouldered the blame for not staking Aspen to the lead.
“I missed three easy kicks that would have turned the game around in the first half,” Williams said. “It’s a matter of concentration and preparation. I should have concentrated harder and prepared better and those kicks would’ve gone through.”
Belmont Shore’s Hammill scored his second try of the day on another pooch kick into the Aspen zone from Hercus early in the second half. Aspen winger Brian Hightower answered with the Gents’ only try of the game, intercepting a Belmont Shore pass in the back line and running it in for a try. Belmont Shore added two more penalty kicks before Hightower’s try brought Aspen within eight points, 16-8, for much of the second half.
With Aspen in desperation mode with about two minutes remaining, Belmont Shore sealed the win when winger Andrew Wind intercepted a pass from the Aspen backs and ran it 45 meters for a try.
“I have total confidence that we can beat [Belmont Shore], but we have to be focused and prepared as individuals to go out there and play our best,” Williams said. “If we play as badly as that against anybody, we’ll lose. Now, we’ve got to get in that position for where we can play them again.”
For Aspen, the loss sets a familiar stage for the playoffs. Last season, Aspen opened Premier League play with a 32-5 loss at OMBAC in San Diego. Rather than demoralizing the Gents, the shocking defeat served to energize them. Aspen didn’t lose another game all season and capped off national title No. 5 with a vengeful whipping of OMBAC in the final, 56-21.
Williams and Going are hoping Saturday’s experience has the same effect.
“We were definitely down. We let ourselves down. We let the coach down. We let Aspen rugby down,” Williams said. “But it’s interesting how you react to a loss. Everyone will be looking at each other to see how they react, and if some of the guys don’t perform, they’ll be dropped on the side and others will step up.”
“I’m happy with the way the players are responding already,” Going said Monday. “They are themselves becoming accountable for their own performances, without me coming after them, and that’s a positive sign right there.
“I think it’ll start at training this week,” Going continued. “Those players who are pushing for a spot will be raising their hands.”
Two regular-season games remain for Aspen before the eight-team Premier League playoffs open May 18.
On Saturday at 3 p.m. at Aspen’s Rio Grande Park, the Gents host the Olympic Club Old Blues of California. The Old Blues are 0-5. The following Saturday, May 11, Aspen travels to face 1-3 Boston.
In the playoffs, the top two teams from the regular season in the three divisions of the Premier League earn berths to the playoffs, along with two wild-card teams. Aspen now stands as the No. 2 team in the Red Division behind Belmont Shore.
“I’m not fussed about a score margin with these games,” Going said of Aspen’s final two regular-season opponents. “I’m more interested in getting our combinations back together.
“It’s been frustrating as a coach; you have to look at the players you’ve got and the players who are trying to get in and see if you can put the jigsaw puzzle together a bit better.”
At best, Going said the Belmont Shore defeat could serve as an “awakening” for the Gents.
“It’s a wakeup call for us for sure, and a beginning of something exciting. … It does put the pressure on – we can’t afford to have any more substandard performances. We have previously thrived on being under pressure. We’ve been there and we know what it’s like. We’ve just got to pick up our act, be truthful with each other, pull together and go. It’s going to be a complete team effort in all phases of our game plan.”
The Gents need only one more win to secure a berth in the playoffs. However, should Aspen win its final two games, the Gents may earn home games for the playoffs. The Premier League final will be in Aspen on June 8, regardless of whether or not Aspen advances that far.
“What we have to take out of it is one step at a time,” said Williams. “We don’t look too far down the road, and that starts with training. You play the way you train, and we’ve been training poorly. Now we’ve got to look at the Olympic Club Old Blues, and eventually the results will take care of themselves.”
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