Meet the ruggers | AspenTimes.com

Meet the ruggers

Nate Peterson

Mando Herrera dives while passing the ball during a recent practice at Wagner Park. (Mark Fox/Aspen Times Weekly)

Oklahoma isn’t the first place most people look for a good hooker.But that’s where Steve Blair found Luke Turner, a 23-year-old student at the University of Oklahoma at Norman who plays rugby for the Sooners’ club team in his spare time. It’s also where the first-year coach of the Gentlemen of Aspen met Jack Meeks, one of Turner’s teammates, and Pat Girskis, a 21-year-old flanker from Iowa State University.Turner, Meeks and Girskis were all in Norman in February for the annual Big 12 club rugby tournament. Blair, who took over the Gents on the recommendation of outgoing coach Mark Williams in January, was there to recruit young players for his summer side.During the three-day tournament, Blair scouted each team, then made a hard-to-turn-down proposal to some of the best players.The offer was one Meeks – a center – had received before, and accepted. For Girskis, a former high school football player who grew up in Davenport, Iowa, Blair’s pitch initially caught him off guard – only because it was so enticing.Come play rugby in Aspen for the summer, Blair said. You’ll be a member of one of the top men’s teams in the United States in one of the most serene settings imaginable. And, Blair promised, the network of current and former players will help you find a job, and an affordable place to crash for three months.”I’ve never been to Aspen before, so I figured why not have a sweet job out here, play rugby and just have a good time?” said Girskis, who took up the sport two years ago at the urging of some college friends.When he arrived in the valley last month, Girskis moved into a house with some of his new teammates. He then found steady work painting houses for Williams, the former coach, who still plays occasionally for the Gents.When asked how his summer was going so far, Girskis first smiled, then recounted a typical week, instead of answering the question directly.”You have a great job painting houses all day with a bunch of your friends,” he said. “After work, you go play rugby, then you go home and relax. It’s pretty chill.””I was up here last summer,” said Meeks, a plain-spoken Oklahoma native who started playing rugby during his freshman year of high school. “When I met Steve for the first time, he just made sure I was coming back.”Meeks said his response to Blair’s inquiry was like answering a rhetorical question.”[Wagner Park] is about the best pitch in America,” he said. “You get to play in the mountains, and it’s a beautiful place to live. It’s perfect.”

The few, the proudWho gets the privilege of playing rugby in Aspen in the summer? Well, if you’re good enough, the Gents will find you.At least that’s the impression you get when you talk to some of the young, enthusiastic ruggers who have to come to town this summer to work hard and play hard.It may be more fitting to say that Steve Blair will find you. This summer’s squad – which has an average age of 21 – consists of a dozen players from the U.S., three South Africans, two Kiwis, two Australians and two Scots.At least those are the tallies that Blair gave on Wednesday, July 12, heading into a Saturday match against Glenwood Springs. Blair said the number of American players this summer varies from week to week, and all of the foreign-born players aren’t on the pitch every Saturday.But one thing is certain: While the Gents summer side has a number of returning players from years past, it undoubtedly bears the mark of its spirited, likable coach with the thick Scottish brogue.Look no farther than Mark Ryan and William Lipp to realize as much.After Blair locked up the head coaching job in Aspen, he went in search of some top-tier young talent in his native country by notifying coaches in the Scottish Rugby Union.Ryan’s coach at Aberdeen University alerted him about the opportunity. Lipp, a member of Scotland’s U21 national team, and a friend of Ryan’s, also got word. It didn’t take more than a few phone calls to Blair before the two booked flights to Colorado.Formally the head coach for Glasgow’s all-star under-21 team for two seasons, Blair’s reputation in Scottish rugby circles preceded him. He led the team to a league title one season and had shown a knack for developing young talent during his tenure.The opportunity to train under Blair was convincing enough to inquire about the offer, Ryan said. The idea of spending the summer playing rugby in the United States was even more enticing.”It was just an experience to get away from Scotland and play rugby somewhere else,” said Ryan, who had never been to the U.S. before coming to Aspen. “I decided first. Lipp then decided he wanted to come out with me.”Added Lipp: “Our coach kind of followed up the story, and two months later I’m here in Aspen. I’d heard stories about Aspen. I heard several years ago that they were a major contender for the titles in the [U.S. Rugby] Super League and that they had a good team.”

Summer rulesIndeed, the Gentleman of Aspen were the most dominant team in the country from 1997 to 2002. And, during that stretch, the club recruited some of the most talented foreign players in the world.Aspen began competing on the national level in the Super League and the top division of USA Rugby in 1996, when the two leagues were still separate. The team won both leagues in 1997 and continued winning USA Rugby national titles until 2001, when USA Rugby and the Super League merged to create the USA Rugby Super League. Aspen then captured the combined RSL crown in 2001 and 2002 before losing in the semifinals in 2003.In April 2005, however, the Gents surprisingly dropped out of the Super League midseason. A number of factors led to the decision to leave the league, including a nasty legal spat the Gents had brought against the league in 2004 regarding the eligibility of a foreign-born player.At the time, foreign-born players who had played for RSL clubs for three years weren’t counted toward the total of four foreign players each club was allowed to use.The league handed down a ruling that the Gents had carried one extra foreigner, New Zealander Rata Going, in their lineup during the 2004 regular season. The ruling called for Aspen to forfeit six of its games – a blow that expelled Aspen from the RSL postseason.The Gents appealed the ruling, but USA Rugby, which decides RSL player-eligibility matters, still found Going in violation of a rule governing resident players. USA Rugby said Going played in one too many matches (three) for another club in New Zealand the previous seasons, and revoked his resident-player status. The Gents then filed a lawsuit, which eventually led to an independent arbitrator’s ruling in Boulder District Court to settle the matter. The arbitrator ruled that Going did break the resident-player rules, but the violation did not warrant expelling the team from the postseason. The Gents were seemingly validated, but the entire process only widened the rift between Aspen and its host league. After a rash of injuries the next season and lacking sufficient reserves to field a team, Aspen dropped out of the RSL.The Gents subsequently returned to their roots as a “summer” club – a move that allowed the team to fill out a roster with whomever they pleased. The Gents also continue to field a National 7s team.The summer Mountain League – which the Gents have thus far dominated – has no rules regarding the number of players on each team who have to be from the U.S.Blair has used that to his advantage, filling out his roster with a bevy of talented players from Scotland, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.Still, as Blair pointed out, the majority of players on this year’s team are Americans. The idea, Blair said, was to attract a core group of talented college players from the region to learn from the experienced foreigners on the team.”What you find out here is that there are a lot of good athletes,” Blair said, in regard to club players in the U.S. “Some of them, their basic knowledge needs a lot of work. They’re very, very keen to learn. … A lot of them played high school football, and it’s a lot more regimented. They see rugby as another avenue for more ball time and more game time.”Basic instinctsRobert Castillo, 27, is the perfect example of a typical U.S.-born rugby player. A shifty, fleet-footed wing who hails from Los Angeles, Castillo started playing club rugby at tiny Division II University of New Mexico Highlands after he had exhausted his eligibility on the football team.His passion for rugby continues to grow; although, despite years of practice, Castillo noted he is still learning a game that his foreign counterparts play instinctively. After he visited Aspen last fall for Ruggerfest while playing on a team based in Las Vegas, he was offered the chance to come back and play this summer for the Aspen side. The opportunity to team up with talented foreigners under an experienced Scottish coach was too good to pass up, Castillo said.”The thing about American guys is that we don’t learn until we’re all 22 or 23 years old,” Castillo said. “I think the main difference is that you have guys who have been playing since they were 5, and things come instinctively to them. For me, I’m out there thinking, ‘Should I go in, or out, or what do I do here?'”Ryan agreed with Castillo’s assessment.”It’s definitely different here,” he said. “Just getting used to new props who haven’t played as long as most. People are still learning, trying to grasp some of the basics that we’ve been brought up with. Just basic stuff like rucking and tackling.””The only problem with U.S. Rugby is that it’s not a young thing,” Lipp added. “You don’t learn to play rugby here until you get to high school or college. … In Scotland, we start when we’re 5.” All in the ruckAs for how the Gents’ foreign-born players mesh with their American counterparts away from the pitch, that comes much easier.Rugby is a sport of brotherhood. It’s a sport where partnerships on the pitch aren’t easily forgotten – whether in the bar after a good match or months later when most of the players on this summer’s team are back in college.Lipp said one of the best things about coming to Aspen has been the chance to train at altitude. Even better, however, has been the opportunity to meet new friends.”It’s a young team. There’s a lot of college guys, and we all get on,” he said. “We go out and have fun on the weekends as well as on the pitch.”Blair, ever the perfectionist, said at times he gets flustered by some of his team’s youthful mistakes. At the same time, he loves the group’s enthusiasm.”They’ve got a lot of energy and attitude,” he said. “Sometimes I can’t get it right. Sometimes I do. At the end of the day, they’re a good bunch of lads.”The idea was really just to get that sort of youthful spirit back, that camaraderie going. Getting these guys enjoying their rugby again in Aspen where you know, really, it all works.”Nate Peterson’s e-mail is npeterson@aspentimes.com