As they do, Aspen Gents rally back in Ruggerfest final to beat the Raptors
Aspen rugby wins back-to-back Ruggerfest titles, first since 2009
The Gents rally to win Ruggerfest. Where have we heard that one before?
It’s become the norm in recent years for the Gentlemen of Aspen Rugby Club to overcome a halftime deficit in its annual home tournament and storm back in dramatic fashion. Sunday was no different, with the Gents pulling off another comeback to win Ruggerfest 54 over the American Raptors, 45-39, at Wagner Park in downtown Aspen.
“There is something about playing into the fans there in the second half that lifts us. … It’s hard to stop that momentum when we get on top,” Aspen player and coach Ben Mitchell said. “I’ve won three Ruggerfests now, and all three of them have been come-from-behind victories; so no, honestly, there were no doubts.”
Mitchell, who plays professionally in Major League Rugby, first won Ruggerfest in 2018 as a player when he helped the Gents rally from a 26-7 deficit late in the first half to beat the Dark ’n Stormy Misfits, 40-38, for their first Ruggerfest title since 2015.
He took over as the team’s head coach in 2019, when the Gents failed to make the finals at Ruggerfest. The 2020 event was canceled because of the pandemic before the home side returned to the top of the Ruggerfest hierarchy in 2021, overcoming a halftime deficit to beat these same American Raptors, 44-36.
“He does a lot of work off the field, and he’s an even better player. Just to see him there and leading the team as he does, that to me was the game-changer,” longtime Aspen Gents player Darren Barth said of Mitchell. “Winning back-to-back, it hasn’t happened since 2009. So, that’s great for the guys to get two wins in a row. It’s pretty exciting for all the boys, and we had a great weekend, a great team.”
Indeed, the Gents had not won Ruggerfest in back-to-back years since winning its fourth straight in 2009. After that, Aspen wouldn’t win again until that 2015 team, followed by the titles in 2018, 2021 and now 2022.
This was the Gents’ 23rd championship at Ruggerfest, a tournament that dates to the first in 1968, won by the Kansas City Blues. Aspen’s first title came in 1971, and the club didn’t win its home tournament again until 1985. The Gents dominated Ruggerfest in the 1990s and early 2000s, a time when they were also winning national championships.
For much of the first half on Sunday, the Gents looked anything but dominant.
“We started slow and picked it up in the second half. We were really on top of them in the second half and won the momentum in the start of the second half,” Mitchell said. “Made it a little bit hard for ourselves in the last few minutes but pulled through with a big defensive stand at the end.”
The Gents led 3-0 over the Raptors after a successful penalty kick but lost any momentum soon after. The Raptors took over and soon enough had a 22-3 lead late into the period. It was a try by Mitchell late in the first half that made is 22-10 at the break and gave the Gents a lot of momentum to build on in the late stages of the match.
“Honestly, we didn’t say too much,” Mitchell said of the team at halftime. “We made quite a few sloppy errors in the first half, and we knew, if we just fixed those sort of unforced errors, we were going to have a really strong second half, and that’s what we did.”
Before anyone could blink, the Gents had turned that deficit into a commanding lead, which reached as much as 45-25 with about 10 minutes to play. But, the Raptors kept fighting, getting two quick scores to pull within six points with about six minutes to play before the Gents’ defense was able to stop the bleeding and hold on for the win.
“He trusted our structure. We had the strongest set piece in the comp. Won our scrum, won our lineout,” said the Gents’ Brad Hemopo, a professional player (and teacher) out of New Zealand who was playing at Ruggerfest for the first time this year, of Mitchell at halftime. “We had a momentum change, and, fortunately, we got down to the right end of the field and put some points on the board.”
Hemopo, along with Mitchell, was among the standouts for the Gents and had the honor of being the first to handle the championship trophy after the game.
While the professionals certainly made a difference, so did many of Aspen’s year-round players, as well as many of the younger locals who had previously played for the Junior Gents at the high school level. They all had a hand in helping Aspen go 5-0 over the weekend to successfully defend its Ruggerfest title.
“Over the moon, honestly,” Mitchell said of winning Ruggerfest on Sunday. “As you see today, there are so many old boys out, so many people who have played for the club or been part of the club for the 50 years the club has existed. They were all out here, and it means as much to them as it does to us. It’s just a huge boost for the club when we win this.”
Sunday wasn’t just about the Gents and the open division, but the championship matches of each division were all played on the final day. Earlier that morning, the Grey Huskies beat Black Ice Rugby, 12-7, to win the women’s division. The Kansas City Blues won the 55s division and the Dallas Harlequins won the 50s division, with Time Rugby taking the 40s crown.
This year’s Ruggerfest also included a 60s division — the two teams split their two games — and a high school division, with the Denver Select besting the Junior Gents.
For a first-timer like Hemopo, Ruggerfest more than lived up to the hype.
“I love it here. Look where we are. It’s so beautiful,” the current Sydney, Australia, resident said. “There are people who have been here 54 years before me. I am grateful that they carried on the tradition, and, hopefully, I put their jersey in a better place for the next person.”
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