Gentlemen of Aspen reclaim Ruggerfest title

Dale Strode
The Aspen Times
The Gentlemen of Aspen celebrate their historic victory Sunday afternoon in the open division championship of the annual Ruggerfest rugby tournament. The Gents won their first open title since 2008.
Daniel Bayer / Special to The Aspen Times |

The Gentlemen are back — in a big way.

A 51-27 way.

The Gentlemen of Aspen reclaimed the title of Ruggerfest champions Sunday afternoon when they used a balanced, opportunistic attack and a dynamic kicking game to beat the all-star Misfits in the open division championship, played in front of a large crowd at Wagner Rugby Stadium.

The Gentlemen, with a new-look lineup bolstered by internationally experienced players, led from the start in Sunday’s finale, parlaying a late first-half scoring flurry and a 22-7 halftime lead into an eventual 51-27 victory — Aspen’s first Ruggerfest open championship since 2009.

“For us to get silverware for this town is very special,” said Harry Bennett of the Gentlemen of Aspen, named the most valuable player of Sunday’s final. “This is huge for this community.”

Bennett, originally from Sydney, Australia, used his international experience to control much of the field position with his kicking against the Misfits.

Bennett scored a second-half try on a burst through the middle of the Misfits defense. He added the conversion kicks for the Gentlemen.

And Bennett dazzled the crowd with a drop-kick goal for three more points to open the second half when the Gentlemen took advantage of the shorthanded Misfits, who had a player sent off for 10 minutes for a yellow-card violation.

Aspen similarly scored twice in the opening half when the Misfits were forced to play with 14 instead of the usual 15.

“The variety of accents on this team make things a little confusing,” Bennett said. “But at the end of the day, we all bind together.”

Bennett was invited to join the Gentlemen of Aspen for the 2015 Ruggerfest through his current club, the Santa Monica Rugby Club.

“(The Gentlemen of Aspen) have a strong affiliation with the Santa Monica Rugby Club. The (Aspen) old boys called us up and invited us to come out here and play,” said Bennett, one of Australia’s top-tier players. “I put up my hand, and I’m so grateful for the opportunity.”

As someone who has played rugby in a rugby-loving country like Australia, Bennett said that he and the other new players realized how important rugby is to Aspen and the Gentlemen.

“We got to meet a lot of the old boys from the Aspen club. We know they’ve had a tough time the last couple of years,” said Bennett, who started playing rugby at age 4. “We know this (championship) is huge for the community.”

Bennett, who moved to California last November, said the experience at key positions helped the Gentlemen, who were led by head coach Cameron McIntyre with assistance from former longtime Gents coach Brian Going, a living legend of New Zealand rugby.

Going, at the behest of Mark Williams and the board of the Gentlemen of Aspen, brought five young, talented players from New Zealand to help the Gents’ cause in Ruggerfest 2015.

Going and McIntyre, helped by Gary Williams and Fred Waititi, blended the new players with a core of Gents regulars like James Aldridge, James Stokes, Alan Hodgson and Garrett Lincoln, among others.

In less than two weeks, the Gents coaches molded a championship rugby team.

“It’s been amazing,” said Aspen’s No. 8, Al Hall, also from Sydney. He was voted captain of the Gentlemen for the weekend, directing the Aspen forwards.

He attributed the Gents’ weekend success to strong direction from Going and McIntyre.

“You find something that works, and you stick with it,” Hall said. “That’s what it’s all about. We had … what, six tries on the maul in the last two days. That worked.”

For Aldridge, the former Notre Dame running back, Sunday’s championship victory at Ruggerfest 2015 was a taste of redemption after years of Ruggerfest frustration.

“It means a lot to have that winning identity again,” Aldridge said. “I have to credit our (club) administration for bringing us together. It’s a beautiful thing.”

Aldridge said the new Gents’ players wore the Aspen jerseys with pride all weekend.

“They played like they lived here their whole lives … like they went to Aspen High School,” Aldridge said. “It was beautiful, man.”

McIntyre, a former player on Aspen’s national championship teams, said the club leaders decided they needed to add key players to their regular roster to return the Gents to a competitive level in the open division at Ruggerfest. With international calls out to players with connections to the Gentlemen of Aspen, the local club pulled together the international roster to compete against a talented band of Misfits.

Themselves an international collection of all-star players from around the country, the Misfits fielded an open division team for the first time at the 2015 Ruggerfest. The all-star group, first organized by ex-Eagle Mike “Whitey” Nelson in 2008, evolved from the senior teams that first started as the Misfits.

The Misfits 35s won the Ruggerfest 35s title earlier Sunday with a 57-32 win over the Aspen 35s.

“I’m so grateful for Mark Williams getting on the phone and calling me,” said Going, addressing the Gentlemen after Sunday’s big win. “I’m so grateful to you all. We checked it all together in a couple of weeks. The results are awesome. We completed the deal.”

Going and his grandson Kalani, who scored two tries in the championship, then led the New Zealand players in a special tribute — the haka.

The ancestral war dance of the Maori people of New Zealand and a tradition with the New Zealand All Blacks international side was recreated on the field at Wagner Rugby Stadium in Aspen.

This time, the dance celebrated the Ruggerfest championship for the Gentlemen of Aspen.