Gents rally back against Raptors to win Aspen Ruggerfest in thrilling return
Mark Gerrard didn’t come to Ruggerfest expecting to play all that much, but the Gentlemen of Aspen Rugby Club was glad he saw the pitch as much as he did. The Australian rugby great, who retired from the professional game in 2018, was among the catalysts for the Gents on Sunday in their return to glory at their annual tournament.
“He was great for us. He was almost the difference today,” said Aspen rugby player Darren Barth. “Just his character and presence, the way he speaks to people and controls everything. Everyone just respects him. He’s a leader up front, so having a guy like that with so much experience to back on, it doesn’t hurt.”
The Gents needed all of it to overcome the American Raptors, a relatively new side based out of Denver’s Infinity Park, in the championship game Sunday afternoon at Wagner Park. Aspen overcame a halftime deficit to rally for a 44-36 win to claim the men’s open division of Ruggerfest 53, the Gents’ first win in their prestigious home affair since 2018.
Played about a week later than usual to allow for the delayed Food & Wine Classic this fall, Ruggerfest 2021 was essentially the last major event of the season for the town.
“The older you get, the more you actually enjoy the environment you are in and are more appreciative. I’m actually appreciative the Gentlemen of Aspen invited me to play rugby,” said Gerrard, who removed himself from the championship game late in the second half due to a bothersome hamstring. “I didn’t expect to play this much, but I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I’ll be back here (next year) sitting on the other side of the fence having a cold beer.”
This past weekend marked Ruggerfest’s return to Aspen for the first time in two years after the 2020 tournament was canceled because of the pandemic. Thousands of people lined Wagner Park throughout the four days of play, culminating in all five division finals being held in succession Sunday. Other division champions included Time Rugby (40s), the Virginia Cardinals (50s) and the KC Blues (55s), with the Warthogs taking the women’s division.
The finale came down to the Aspen Gents and the Raptors, a side of cross-over athletes — meaning, most of their athletes had played another sport other than rugby prior to joining their team — that had only been together a handful of weeks and therefore lacked the experience found on the Gents’ side.
The Raptors had plenty of pure athletic talent, however, and that caused some problems for Aspen during the middle of their match.
“We actually started really well, but then the last 20 minutes of the first half we were a bit poor, and we let them get the lead on us,” said Aspen player and head coach Ben Mitchell. “But we made some good substitutions early in the second half and gained the momentum and managed to keep it for the rest of the game, which was really nice. It was great having the crowd on our side. I think that played a big part.”
For Mitchell, who has played professionally for Major League Rugby’s San Diego Legion the past few seasons, it was his second Ruggerfest championship, his first coming as a player in 2018. He took over as the Aspen club’s primary coach in the summer of 2019, with the Gents losing in the semifinals of Ruggerfest that year, so the 2021 title is his first in a coaching role.
This was the Gents’ 22nd championship at Ruggerfest, a tournament that dates back 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 but have only won three times (2015, 2018, 2021) dating back to its 2009 win.
Photos: Aspen Gents vs American Raptors at Ruggerfest 53
The 2021 title was also the first for Aspen since the death of Jerry Hatem, the club’s former president who tragically died in a June 2019 snowmobiling accident.
“Everyone was in really good spirits. You couldn’t ask for anything better after a year off,” Mitchell said. “The result didn’t end how we wanted in 2019, but now to get the monkey off the back is pretty sweet honestly. It was quite a stressful weekend coaching and playing but really, really rewarding in the end.”
The men’s open division started Saturday, with Aspen winning both games during pool play — a 27-0 win over the Olympic Club and a 45-7 rout of the Queen City Pioneers. The Gents then beat the Dallas Harlequins later that day in the semifinals, 38-14.
The American Raptors lost their first game of pool play Saturday, falling 15-14 to the Olympic Club. But the side rallied back with a 62-0 win over Dallas and a 41-14 quarterfinal win over the Denver Waterdogs, the reorganized version of the Dark ‘n Stormy Misfits, who had dominated the tournament in recent years with titles in 2016, 2017 and 2019. The Raptors then got their revenge over the Olympic Club in the semifinals, winning 40-5.
Trailing to Aspen early in Sunday’s championship, the Raptors came back to lead 24-15 at halftime and held a two score lead well into the second half before the Gents took over the match.
“It feels good to be playing rugby on Sunday afternoon at Wagner Park. It’s a win that means everything to us,” said Barth, who now has a personal record of 2-2 in Ruggerfest finals. “It started good. Big credit to the American Raptors, who had some really big, physical, strong, fast guys, and they put us under pressure, and we got a little rattled. Then at halftime we took a big breath and settled in and said, ‘Guys, let’s play our own game, and let’s play the way we’ve trained to play,’ and pulled it all together in the end.”
Gerrard admitted after the final he only heard of Ruggerfest for the first time circa 2017 but had been captivated by the idea of coming to Aspen ever since. He had a 17-year professional rugby career, where he scored 523 points in 158 appearances in Super Rugby and Japan’s Top League. He represented his home nation of Australia 24 times on the international level and last summer was named an assistant coach for the Austin Gilgronis of Major League Rugby.
The Gents likely won’t get him to come out of retirement and play at Ruggerfest again, something that hamstring will appreciate, but Gerrard has every intention of returning as a spectator and views Aspen’s iconic tournament as nothing but a boon for the sport worldwide.
“The opportunity to come out to Aspen was always in the cards. It was just whether it would work or not. To be honest, I was only coming here to enjoy the weekend and have a look at some of the talent running around,” Gerrard laughed. “Coming here was a great opportunity to see rugby talent, to see where we could help with our organization. … If we can build those connections, those relationships, it would just create a better environment for rugby and hopefully it will get more recognition in the states to grow the game that way. And for me personally, it was just a great environment.”
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