Gents eye return to top as Aspen Ruggerfest is back for 50th anniversary
Ryan Melrose understands a bit of Aspen’s rugby history, but he’s never experienced it like he will this weekend at the 50th annual Ruggerfest tournament.
“I didn’t realize the size of it until I got here,” Melrose said. “There are a lot of people talking about it, a lot of noise about town about it — people coming in from different states to watch it. I wasn’t expecting that from rugby in America. So it’s pretty exciting.”
Melrose visited Aspen for a brief rugby tour in 2012, coming over from his native Australia. His uncle, Mick Melrose, coached the Gentlemen of Aspen Rugby Club in 2004 and 2005. Now, the younger Melrose will get to play as a Gent as he represents the Aspen side during this year’s tournament.
Action begins Thursday and concludes with the division finals on Sunday. Matches are played at both Wagner Rugby Stadium and Rio Grande Park.
“It’s beautiful. I love looking around,” Melrose said. “It definitely hurts the lungs a bit. I have to get used to that this week and hopefully by Saturday they are not burning too much.”
The Gents are looking to return to the top of the Ruggerfest hierarchy. Since the first tournament in 1968, Aspen’s own rugby side has won its hometown tourney 20 times. The most recent open division title came in 2015 over the Dark ‘n Stormy Misfits, the same team that defeated them in the 2016 finals with a loaded roster.
“That Misfit team we played last year was a great side. They were incredibly clinical and they played a good game of rugby,” second-year Gent Darren Barth said. “We’ve got a great team this year. It’s our 50th anniversary this year. It’s up to us to live up to that caliber. It’s going to be a bit of added pressure, but sometimes pressure can be good.”
The Gents are returning the bulk of their players from their strong summer season. Aspen cruised through the Mountain League and won both the Cowpie and Ski Town tournaments in Steamboat Springs for an impressive summer sweep. But to even the playing field as they go for the Ruggerfest crown, the Gents have again brought in a handful of talented players, many international, for the weekend.
“It’s no secret that there are invitational players that come out for every Ruggerfest. A few of the other teams do the same as well,” Gents coach Will Herborn said. “Obviously we want to win, but also I want these guys to have an opportunity to play with some people they might never play with or aspire to play with down the line at that level.”
Herborn said he is “quietly confident” about Aspen’s chances to represent in Sunday’s final. Standing in their way could again be the Misfits, although Herborn said the New Orleans Rugby Club is a strong darkhorse to play spoiler this weekend in the open division.
However, the Gents certainly don’t want to disappoint considering the milestone anniversary.
“There is plenty of pressure, but it’s all part of it,” Herborn said. “I think every year Aspen is expected to be in the final. But again, the 50th definitely adds a little more pressure to it.”
Play begins Thursday with the 45s and 55s divisions. Friday will be about the 35s and 50s sides, while Saturday will be the men’s and women’s open divisions. All six divisions will play their championship games on Sunday, with the men’s open final tentatively scheduled for 3:30 p.m. at Wagner Park.
The Gents are fielding four sides this weekend: the men’s open team, as well as a 35s, 45s and 50s side.
“Obviously, rugby is a great game and the first time I came, the product that was produced and the build up for it and everything was really amazing,” said Gent player Todd Pearce, an Australian pro playing in his third Ruggerfest. “Coming to another country where NFL and baseball are more popular sports, but to see rugby this popular in America is really positive and great to see.”
For the most updated schedules, visit aspen-ruggerfest.com or visit the tournament’s Facebook page.
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