Rugby ready to run wild | AspenTimes.com

Rugby ready to run wild

Jon Maletz
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times

ASPEN ” Mark Williams has seen it all in his 24 years participating in Ruggerfest ” the sunshine and snow, the triumphs and defeats, the big crowds, big plays and renewed rivalries.

He keeps coming back for more.

“Oh, I don’t know, [I’ll probably play] until they put me in the box,” the Gentlemen of Aspen player and former head coach joked Wednesday. “I enjoy seeing something really unique in the world of rugby. … This is a showcase not just for great rugby but for a great town.”

Throngs of spectators and more than 25 teams, from open division to 50-plus, will descend on Aspen this weekend to take part in the 41st installment of this much-anticipated, distinctive tournament. The action kicks off this morning with pool play in the 45- and 50-plus divisions at both Wagner and Rio Grande parks and culminates with Sunday’s open-division final, tentatively scheduled for 3:10 p.m.

Topping the drama that unfolded in last year’s soggy, mud-laden open final will be a tall task. Ruggerfest newcomer Taylor Howden nailed a penalty kick with two minutes to play to seal the Gents’ 13-10 victory over Mountain Select ” Aspen’s 10th title in 12 years.

Aspen coach Fred Waititi shed his jacket and warm-up pants and took to the pitch in the second half of last year’s game in an attempt to inject some life into a stagnant offense. He wound up grabbing a ball out of a ruck near Select’s try line and passing wide to Howden, who converted Aspen’s lone try of the match.

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If all goes well this year, Waititi said he hopes to be watching more than playing.

Little has gone well of late.

Ruggerfest is typically the culmination of the Gents’ Summer Mountain League schedule. This year, however, it feels more like the beginning.

Because of a string of cancellations, Aspen has played just twice since July 4. A lack of playing time has made it difficult for veterans and an influx of players from Steamboat and Vail to gel in time for this weekend, Waititi said.

“It’s going to make this weekend tough. It’s been a long time since we last played, and we haven’t done a lot in that time,” the New Zealand native added. “At least we’re fresh. We can’t complain about being too tired.”

But they could complain to Ruggerfest schedulers who did the home team few favors. The Gents open play Saturday at 9:30 against the rival Denver Barbarians ” the only team to beat them during the event’s last dozen years. Then comes a tussle with the Glendale Raptors at 1:10 p.m.

The Barbos and Raptors are widely considered to be among the top teams in the eight-team field, Waititi said.

“If I was doing the draw, it would be a little different,” Waititi said. “It’s going to be a pretty tough weekend on us, but it is the way it is. … Denver comes here with the intention of winning every year, and I’m sure Greendale will have that frame of mind.

“If things came too easy, it wouldn’t be worth playing.”

Aspen opens Division-I play at Boulder on Oct. 4. While playing and winning at home would be a bonus, Waititi said he and the Gents aren’t losing sight of the bigger picture.

“While it’s nice to win your own tournament, it’s not a national championship and that’s what our focus is on,” he said. “[Ruggerfest] is a big deal, and we’re trying to do our part. We’re certainly not going to be too far off the map, but it’s the sort of thing that only time together in games can fix. … We’re getting a lot closer.

“We have three practices this week and we’re going to need all of them. We know we’re going into this underdone, but we’re going to have to battle and make our way through.”

It won’t take the Gents long to find out where they stand, Waititi said. And while a trophy won’t be on the line when familiar foes Aspen and the Barbos meet on Saturday, bragging rights will be.

Denver overcame a 21-0 deficit to win in 2003. In 2005, it trailed 21-3, in the first half but prevailed, 35-31, after an apparent Aspen try was called back with three minutes to play because of an obstruction penalty.

The Gents had the last word, dominating 2006’s title tilt en route to a 32-6 victory.

Williams was often in the middle of those scrums. These days, however, he enjoys Ruggerfest because it is as festive as it is competitive.

“The thing I most look forward to is meeting up with players who have gotten rounder and older and sharing [stories] over a couple of pints on Saturday night,” said Williams, who will suit up for the Gents Boys in the Over-35 division, which begins play Friday. “Everybody comes from all over the country, and, in some cases, all over the world. … It’s unique to bump into each other is a smaller setting like this.”

A familiar face will serve as honorary coach for the Old Boys this weekend. Patrick Culley, a former Gents player who broke his neck during a Super League match in Boston in May 2004, will be manning the sidelines. A charity golf tournament benefiting Culley will take place this morning at the Aspen Golf Course.

Eighty people are expected to take part, Williams said. He’s hoping to raise as much as $12,000 to aid in Culley’s rehabilitation.

“Looking after Patrick is the most important thing we do as a club,” Williams said. “Every year we have a mission statement and we find out what he needs, whether it be retro-fitting his vehicle or getting him to college. We’ll try and raise that money as long as Patrick lets us do it and as long as the club exists.

“Having him as an honorary coach is going to mean a great deal for the old guys.”

jmaletz@aspentimes.com

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