Gents thrive on work, tradition
“There’s an old saying in rugby,” longtime Gentlemen of Aspen John Silich said yesterday, “the forwards are the piano movers, and the backs are the piano players.”
Silich, a former Gents player and coach dating back to 1985, was referring to Ian Walker, the unheralded hooker who has centered Aspen’s scrums since 1987.
“He falls into the mover category,” Silich said with a chuckle, himself a former “mover” too.
The eight big men that comprise Aspen’s forward pack typically accumulate more cuts and bruises than points or notoriety. But collectively, it’s the forwards, guided by veterans like Walker, Bo Buck, Dougald Gillies, captain Jason Walker, and Alec Parker, who set the tone in games by winning possession, or ball, fighting for the “hard yards” as ruggers call it. Their grunt work frees up the team’s nine backs to do the “playing,” so to speak, and hopefully rack up the points.
Glamorous it’s not, but the way “Walkie” sees it, every player has a role, and he’s content with his. “It’s the old cliche, there’s no `I’ in team. It’s not about the individual, it’s a collective effort. I think that rubs off on the new guys,” he said.
Walker, 38, a local building contractor, has an even greater
role behind the scenes for the
team, as do the handful of other Gents who have been on board for all five of the team’s USA Rugby National Championships. The reign began in 1997, and on Saturday at Aspen’s Wagner Park at 2 p.m., the Gents look for a sixth straight crown against Belmont Shore, the only team to beat them during the regular season.
To the outside observer, it may seem that the Gents import new talent from around the globe each year, and inject the young bloods into the lineup to keep the streak alive. But in truth, new talent comes and goes; the team’s core has remained. If it’s any indication, seven of the five-ring holders have also played for the U.S. national team.
Those “old boys,” as coach Brian Going likes to put it (referring to their experience, not age), have helped further a tradition of success that goes unparalleled in American sports today. They’ve stuck around, started businesses and families, committed countless hours toward this goal at hand, U.S. No. 6., meanwhile serving as impromptu ambassadors wherever the red-and-black goes in the states and abroad.
“It’s pretty unique,” Ian Walker said, “just playing together, traveling together so much. If you look at the old guys, when we first started playing, everyone was single; now they’re married, or getting married, and they’ve got kids. So it’s gone from just being rugby, to truly best friends. You’re willing to die for each other almost.”
Mark Williams, the all-time Gents leading scorer, has played with the Gents since 1982, and like Walker, he’s a native of Wales. Williams first arrived 20 years ago looking forward to training at altitude for the summer. Some 20 years later, Williams, now 42, is still here, operating a painting business and playing in the backs for Aspen.
“I think the tradition really started 20 years ago,” Williams said. “We had a lot of older players like Steve Lane and Rob Snyder and Billy Tomb and Eddie Cross; they’d do anything to help a new guy coming into town. In my case, they got me a job painting for Steve Lane and that was the beginning of it.”
Williams also played for the U.S. National Team from 1987 to 1999, an opportunity that allowed him to share the Aspen legend around the world and entice other players to town. And once they’re here, well …
“We started bringing in some U.S. [National Team] players, we’d put ’em up, get ’em fixed up with jobs, and after awhile they too decided Aspen was a great place to live, so they took on businesses and offered the same opportunities to the younger guys that had been extended to them, and the cycle started,” Williams said.
“But it comes down to what a beautiful place we live in,” he added, a sentiment shared by Walker. “You show ’em Wagner Park on a sunny summer day, it’s pretty spectacular what effect that can have.”
The list of the Gents with five rings includes Williams and Ian Walker, second row Bo Buck of Colorado; Australians Dougald Gillies and Chris Morrow, flanker and back, respectively; eight-man Jason Walker of New Zealand, and the team’s longtime president Andrew “Salty” Saltonstall, the Bostonian mastermind behind it all. “A lot of what Salty does goes unnoticed, and that goes beyond what he does for us,” said Silich. “Although he’s not a player, he’s a vital part of the team chemistry.”
Virginian Brian Hightower and Aspen’s own Alec Parker played on Aspen’s first two U.S. champion sides, then had commitments with the U.S. National Team, and injuries, the last two seasons. They’re both back in red and black, ready.
And, of course, there’s coach Going, 53, a legend of rugby in his native New Zealand. He played with his two brothers, Sid and Ken, on the famous All Blacks team in the 1970s, helping make the Going name synonymous with the running, open style of rugby. Going first joined the Gents in 1994, and has helped manufacture the Gents machine as its known today, including the five straight U.S. titles.
“I personally can single him out as being the biggest influence and a major part of the success of the club since 1994,” said Silich.
“It’s good coaching and a dedicated bunch of players,” added Ian Walker, “and very importantly, we have a great bunch of fringe players. You’re only as good as the people you practice with.
“I think there’s a lot of guys on this team, almost everybody, that just have this will to win,”
Walker continued. “It’s kinda contagious, and sometimes it takes a loss to put you back in your place and make you realize maybe there’s someone better. That’s reality, and it makes you a better club.”
Buck, the 6-foot-8, 260-pound second row, first joined the Gents in 1984 after attending college in Colorado. He’s been on board for all five, and he’ll be in the lineup for No. 6 too. Buck, 42, an entrepreneur, brings a work ethic that wears down players far younger.
“You can never say Bo Buck didn’t give everything he’s got,” Williams said. “That’s an inspiration not only to the young guys, but to everyone. And it’s the same with Ian [Walker]. They give everything they’ve got and more.”
Gillies, 37, and Morrow, 29, have been on the bus for all five titles too. Gillies is one of Aspen’s most punishing players, while Morrow, a versatile back, captained the team last season in the successful bid for U.S. No. 5. Gillies owns a landscaping business with a former Gent, while Morrow is a building contractor.
Then there are two more Americans at the core: Alec Parker, 27, and Brian Hightower, 32. Parker is a 1993 Aspen High graduate, and Hightower is a teacher at Aspen Middle School. Hightower, a wing, ranks among the fastest Gents, while Parker, a 6-foot-6 second row, is Aspen’s version of a one-man wrecking crew. “Alec [Parker] just came down to training one day and he was a natural from the get-go,” said Silich. “He’s got the perfect physique for a rugby player in the forward pack: tall, fast, athletic and he’s got a great psychological approach.”
The Aspen captain, Jason Walker (no relation to Ian Walker), joined the Gents in 1992 and he’s played in all of Aspen’s national title games ever since. The New Zealander, who works as a construction superintendent, played five years with the U.S. National Team, remains one of Aspen’s most consistent performers from his eight-man position at the back of the scrum.
“His workload is tremendous, and in recent years, his leadership has been too,” said Silich. “He’s virtually captained the team since 1993, so he brings a lot to the table.”
As for Saturday’s match with Belmont Shore, Williams said it’s not just another title.
“I think this might be the toughest game we’ve had for a long time. They’re undefeated and they’re a real good team, plus there’s a lot of pressure with us playing in Aspen. But I’m confident, we’ve been in these situations before and we can’t let it get to us.”
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