Aspen overcomes early mistakes to mow down Vail
ASPEN ” Aspen and Vail. As far as ski towns go, both make claims as the best in Colorado.
As far as rugby is concerned, an argument doesn’t exist.
Or, to borrow Vail’s slogan, there is no comparison ” to Aspen, that is.
Such was evident again Saturday as the Gentleman of Aspen overcame an early 5-0 deficit to score 55 unanswered points and hand Vail its first loss of the summer Mountain League season.
The win gave Aspen the inaugural Culley Cup, named in honor of former Gent Patrick Culley who was on the sidelines Saturday in his wheelchair.
In May 2004, Culley was paralyzed from the chest down when he collided with an opposing forward while playing for the Gents in a match in Boston. He has since regained nominal use of his arms and hands, and in an interview with the Aspen Times last week, noted that he is close to living independently.
After Saturday’s game, a barbecue was held at Koch Lumber Park to raise more money for Culley’s medical expenses. Before Saturday, the Gents had already raised around $100,000 in the past two years to help support their former teammate.
Aspen captain Jeremy Takirau noted that Culley’s presence provided extra motivation for Aspen’s biggest game so far this summer.
“We’ve had it on our minds since two-and-a-half weeks ago, when coach told us we were going to have a cup named after Pat,” said Takirau, a halfback who scored three second-half tries for Aspen. “It’s been an unfortunate accident. We knew we were playing for Patrick and we wanted to put a good game on for him and make him proud.”
Added head Gents coach Steve Blair: “It was a big build up for today’s game. We wanted to put on a show for Pat, with him being back in town.”
Steve Blair returns
Culley’s return to Aspen wasn’t the only interesting subplot. After coaching Vail’s Blue and White side last year, Saturday marked the first time Blair coached and played against his former team.
The aggressive energy made for a jumbled opening twenty minutes full of penalties and mistakes from both teams.
Aspen appeared to break the scoreless tie about five minutes into the match, but a Gents’ try was called back because of an illegal forward pass. Another costly penalty for the Gents deep in their own zone led to Vail’s only try on a run from halfback Brighton Khumalo.
Following the missed conversion, Vail found itself in an unfamiliar position with the lead ” a position it wouldn’t hold for very long. The Gents’ tied the game a few minutes later with a try, then added another from a Micah Mills’ run. Fullback Steve Newman added the conversion to give Aspen a 12-5 lead.
Micah Mills’ score was set up by Gents old boy Mark Williams, the Gents’ head coach last summer who recommended Blair for the head coaching position this past offseason. Williams provided a notable spark for his team when he entered the game midway through the first half, with the game’s outcome still hanging in the balance. To go with his assist to Mills, he also got into two scuffles before the whistle for the half ” the first with Vail captain, Brandon McDonald, the second with Khumalo.
The scuffles weren’t inconsequential, Takirau said.
“The first 20 minutes, we had a bit of trouble. That’s just getting into it and getting our minds into the game really. … We put some players in there because we knew they were going to give us a game. You do whatever works,” Takirau said. “When they were winning, it made us a little bit nervous, but we knew if we ran them wide, we’d get them tired.”
That strategy worked to near perfection in the second half, after Aspen entered the break up, 19-5.
Rapid-fire passes set up Tarkirau’s first try in the opening minutes of the second half after the speedy back caught the ball in space and then darted down the left sideline to dive in for the score.
Mark Mills added the conversion, then tacked on three more points off a penalty kick a few minutes later. Mark Mills then added a try of his own, followed by another conversion to give Aspen a 36-5 lead.
Takirau then added two more tries off nimble runs through the Vail defense. Aspen’s final try came off a surge from a ruck deep in the Vail zone.
“With the depth that they have, it’s just kind of hard to keep stamina,” said McDonald of his team’s losing effort. “They had more experience and more legs. We were playing with kind of a collage of guys. There were a couple of guys that haven’t played for us, but who we’re really, really happy they came out today. We’re just trying to lubricate everything and get the gears going. It was pretty good at the beginning, but like I said, with their numbers, they penetrated us.”
Added Blair: “We wanted to put on a show because we were sending a statement out. There was a lot at stake today. I’m just glad it ended up on the right side of things.”
Aspen improved its record to 5-0 this summer. Vail (2-1) hosts Glenwood Springs Saturday at 3 p.m.
Nate Peterson’s e-mail address is email@example.com.