Gents take off for rugby’s World Cup | AspenTimes.com

Gents take off for rugby’s World Cup

Steve Benson
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Following his sophomore year at Mesa State, Aspen native Alec Parker traded his football jersey for a rugby shirt. Five months later, he became a member of the U.S. national rugby team.

Tomorrow, Parker and Gentlemen of Aspen teammate Gerhard Klerck will join their U.S. Eagles Rugby teammates in California as they prepare for next month’s 2003 Rugby World Cup in Australia. Both Parker and Klerck play lock, or second row.

Parker, who played tight end in college, said when he returned to Aspen during the summer everybody told him he should try out for the Gents. One summer he did, and the rest is history.

“I started playing to keep in shape for football,” Parker said. “I never went back to college.”

Now 29 years old, Parker is part of a 30-man squad that is roughly half American and half international. Most of his teammates, including South Africa-native Klerck, are originally from rugby-centric countries.

“I’ve basically played [rugby] all my life,” said Klerck, who started playing when he was 6 years old.

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On the other hand, most of the American-born players come from football backgrounds.

“I miss football a lot,” Parker said. “But in rugby you get to play at both ends – tackle as well as run. You don’t get to do that in football. [Rugby’s] nonstop, it flows.”

After taking off the 2000 and 2001 seasons from the U.S. national team, Parker is feeling good both physically and emotionally.

“I’d say [the team] looks the best it’s ever looked since ’96,” Parker said. “There’s finally some teamwork. It’s usually made of the best players, and everyone plays individually, but the team has come together.

“We’re starting to play more like a team, everyone respects each other,” he added. “We’re starting to do things we would have never been able to do. You can feel it on the team, guys are excited.”

In the past year, the Eagles beat their rivals, Canada, in two separate tournaments.

“We actually beat them pretty good,” Klerck said. “It’s always been a rivalry, but Canada had the upper hand until recently.”

That being said, Parker and Klerck expect the Eagles to redeem themselves after a miserable, winless campaign in the Rugby World Cup, which occurs every four years, in 1999.

“I think we have a good shot at impressing the rugby world in terms of our capabilities,” Klerck said. “I think we’re much further ahead than people think we are.”

“I’d be disappointed if we didn’t win at least two [games],” Parker added.

The U.S. faces Fiji in their opening World Cup match on Oct. 15, followed by further pool play against Scotland, Japan and France in various Australian venues.

“France and Scotland will be tough, [and] it will be hard to beat Scotland, but it can be done,” Parker said.

He feels their chances against Japan, however, are pretty solid.

“The last time we played them we crushed them,” he said.

Klerck, who came to Aspen five years ago to play for the Gents, was invited to join the Eagles last year. This is his first World Cup.

“I’m very excited,” Klerck said. “I kind of don’t know what to expect, but I’m excited and curious to see. I’m ready for the adventure.”

Many of the teams in the World Cup boast some of the most experienced and skilled players in the world. Several are members of high-profile professional leagues and are paid well, allowing them to devote all of their time to rugby. Most of the U.S. players aren’t quite as fortunate.

Parker, a carpenter, balances rugby with his job – which pays a lot more than rugby – and his family. Before his wife had a baby, he was waking up at 4 a.m. and driving to Basalt to lift weights before going to work.

“That was all right. I did that for about three months before I got burnt out,” Parker said. “Mostly it’s just running for me now.”

Building homes, Parker said, is a workout in itself. But he still runs trails like the Ute and Smuggler, and he feels that gives him at least a slight edge against the competition.

“I have an advantage because of the altitude,” he said.

[Steve Benson’s e-mail address is sbenson@aspentimes.com]

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