In Aspen, rugby is always a hit | AspenTimes.com

In Aspen, rugby is always a hit

Jon Maletz

Aspens Damien Barr wears some of the mud from Wagner Park after the Gentlemen of Aspen defeated the Denver Barbarians, 13-7, to win last years open division title at a rain-soaked Ruggerfest. Mark Fox/The Aspen Times

It’s time to dust off the striped rugby shirts and cleats; time to brush up on terms like ‘dummy,” “maul” and “scrum.'”It’s time to lay claim to those coveted patches of grass surrounding Wagner Park. This morning, Aspen’s much-anticipated and oft-duplicated Ruggerfest kicks off for the 38th time. More than 40 teams of all different ages, male and female, from Seattle to New York, Florida to California, will participate in this weekend’s events. Forty-five matches alone are on the schedule for today, starting at 9 a.m., on the pitch at Wagner and Rio Grande parks. Many teams make the trek each year for the unrivaled views, the high level of competition and the camaraderie. Most also come for the complementary keg of Guinness that McStorlie’s Pub donates each day.

“If you are gonna go for a tournament, you could go to No Name USA, or you could come to Aspen and get what you see when you walk outside,” Ruggerfest chairman and Gents player Dougald Gillies said. “This is an environment conducive to enjoying yourself.”Wagner Park sets this tourney apart, with the local town surrounding and cheering you on,” he added. “The natural surroundings, like Aspen Mountain and Independence Pass, and the crystal-clear days make this a great atmosphere.”Former USA Rugby treasurer Terry Fleener expressed the same sentiments about the town. In 1968, he contacted Englishman Richard Shurlock to see if he would be interested in holding a tournament for some clubs from Denver and the Midwest, according to a piece longtime Gentlemen rugger Bryan McShane wrote. Shurlock, well-versed in the game, obliged, McShane wrote. He scoured Aspen, recruiting what would become the first-ever Gentlemen side. The recruits, most of whom knew little or nothing about the sport, planted aspen trees on either end of Wagner Park to act as goalposts. They donned old basketball jerseys with colors matching those of Aspen’s high school teams.

Fans flocked to see the teams play that fall. And it has been the same way ever since, as community members habitually gather to watch the Gents wrap up their fall mountain rugby season.”We get more people watching the Ruggerfest final than the Super League final,” Gillies said. “We’ve always had great support from the town and we greatly appreciate it. Without their support and enthusiasm, there wouldn’t be a club.” This year, the Gents are making a concerted effort to increase community involvement. Club players have taken a higher profile in operating the event and will join with local volunteers for all cleanup duties. Mayor Helen Klanderud will take part in the ceremonial kickoff at 9 a.m. today, and will be on hand to present trophies to the winners Sunday.The Gents also plan to donate a portion of the proceeds from bar and merchandise sales to aid the Hurricane Katrina relief effort, Gillies said. Money raised will also benefit Pat Kelly, who, on May 1, 2004, broke his neck while playing in a Super League match in Boston.

Kelly will undoubtedly be on his teammates’ minds as the Gents kick off play at noon Saturday against the New Mexico Vatos at Wagner Park. The Gents will look to continue their Ruggerfest domination, having won eight of the last 10 team club titles, including seven in a row from 1996-2002. In 2003, the Denver Barbarians overcame a 21-0 halftime deficit, rallying to defeat Aspen in the game’s waning moments. Win or lose, Ruggerfest has never failed to produce lasting memories for its participants. It is an event that is as close to the players’ hearts as any other, Gillies said.”I have some great stories, but none I want to put in print,” Gillies said. “This game is typically all about camaraderie. You can sit down and have a beer and laugh with an opponent after breaking his nose in a game. You can’t say that about other contact sports.”Ruggerfest in Aspen was the original, and although many have used it’s name, it is and will remain the best.”Jon Maletz’s email address is jmaletz@aspentimes.com