Major League Rugby star Ben Mitchell takes over as Aspen rugby club coach
IF YOU GO ...
What: Aspen rugby vs. Breckenridge
When: Saturday, 1 p.m.
Where: Rio Grande Park in Aspen
Without the Gentlemen of Aspen Rugby Club, Ben Mitchell might not be playing professional rugby. After all, it was at Ruggerfest a few years back that he was spotted by some recruiters and invited to take part in the newly formed Major League Rugby.
“I’m fortunate that I was here at the right time and got spotted at the right time and got into the league at the right time,” Mitchell said. “It’s a club that’s given me a lot over the last few years. It was an opportunity that came up and I kind of jumped at it and really wanted to give back and help the next crop of guys coming through.”
That opportunity was to be the next coach for the Aspen Gents. Taking over for Will Herborn this summer, Mitchell brings an imposing presence — he’s listed as being 6-foot-7, 255 pounds — as well as quite the background in the sport. Born in England before moving to Ireland when he was 6, rugby has been a major part of the 25-year-old’s life.
He’s played at just about every level there is, and has been a central piece of the Austin Elite Rugby franchise, one of the founding members of MLR, which just finished its second season. Mitchell was named second team all-MLR earlier this week.
“He certainly is an authoritarian figure,” longtime Aspen assistant coach Cameron McIntyre said. “He was a very knowledgeable player before he had this pro gig. But he’s also able to give strong, positive direction. He has really not left much to guess. … These guys are going to benefit greatly by the end of the summer.”
Mitchell first played with the Gents in 2016 and returned in 2017. He sat out most of the 2018 summer season but did take part in September’s Ruggerfest tournament, helping lead the Gents to their first title in their home tourney since 2015.
Limited as a player because of his professional obligations, getting the chance to coach the Gents this summer was almost too good to be true.
“It’s a great honor to coach the Gentlemen. There is a lot of history and a lot of pride in this club and a lot of great players have played for this club,” Mitchell said. “Last summer I wasn’t playing either, and I wasn’t really coaching and I wasn’t fully involved with the team and I didn’t really like it. Whereas this year I can get back involved again. I still like to be considered as one of the lads. I’m not just like the big boss, I’m still one of the boys and that’s what I really love.”
Aspen is off to a 3-0 start this summer with wins over the Misfits, Steamboat Springs and Glenwood Springs. The Gents will host Breckenridge at 1 p.m. Saturday in their home opener at Rio Grande Park in Aspen. The following weekend, the Gents will host Vail, which for a second straight summer looks to be the class of the Rocky Mountain Rugby league.
“It’s probably a bit of a younger side than we’ve had the last few years,” Mitchell said of this year’s Aspen side. “But that’s a good challenge as a coach to bring on a few raw players and try to develop them. At the same time we still have some super talented guys and guys with massive potential.”
Saturday’s game against Breckenridge will be the first in Aspen since club president Jerome Hatem died in a snowmobiling accident earlier this month, just before the first game of the season. McIntyre, who is helping set up the field this weekend, something Hatem usually did, said the club is in the process of electing a new president.
“It’s hard. We are trying to find our way again,” McIntyre said. “It’s difficult. Within the members of the club and the board members, we have to redefine our roles and make sure we can try to move on and make the legacy continue.”
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Cam Daniel is a former youth addiction counselor who’s been a Pitkin County sheriff’s deputy for three years.