Muddy good: Gents win Ruggerfest
ASPEN Soaked from rain, covered in mud and utterly spent, Taylor Howden didn’t have the energy to consider the weight of the moment.His sole focus was the middle of the post splitting the pair of uprights facing Aspen Mountain – not the score of the match, nor the anxious crowd surrounding the pitch. Certainly not the thought that, on the 40th anniversary of Ruggerfest, his right leg would decide whether the hometown Gentleman of Aspen would walk off the pitch winners or losers.With his head down, and one quick swipe of the leg, Howden nailed a dead-on strike through the posts, setting off an eruption from Aspen’s sideline. Across the field on the Mountain Select sideline, the reaction couldn’t have been more disparate.Two minutes later, after Aspen withstood one last frenzied push from its evenly-matched opponent, the concluding whistle blew, putting the most memorable Ruggerfest final in recent memory into the books.Gents 13, Mountain Select 10.”I do the same thing every kick, and all I think about is putting the [expletive] ball over the post, mate,” Howden said afterward. “This is my first Ruggerfest, so it feels great.”It couldn’t feel any worse for Select coach Steve Blair, who just one year earlier, was on Aspen’s sideline coaching the Gents to victory.Blair’s team – primarily made up of players from Vail and Steamboat Springs’ summer Mountain League sides – held a 10-3 lead late in the match, but missed two late penalty kicks. The miscues allowed Aspen to tie the game late with a Howden try and conversion.Another major penalty on Aspen then led to another penalty kick for Select, and another missed opportunity. Howden wouldn’t do the same, ending the suspense with his right foot.”I thought we had the opportunities to put the game away and I thought we played a good game of rugby under the conditions, but Aspen came back,” a solemn Blair said. “It was pressure rugby for both teams, and I think it was a really good game. It was low scoring, and it always hurts to lose by a penalty.”While the ending of the match was memorable, most of the action that preceded it wasn’t. Drizzling rain turned Wagner park into a mud pit, and both teams struggled to string together any offensive momentum. The heft of the major penalties were the result of the slippery track: Players from both teams were repeatedly whistled for illegally using their hands during rucks.”The refereeing was a little frustrating at times, but the conditions kind of add to the referees’ calls,” said Aspen prop Cameron Adams. “The conditions certainly probably suited them better than us. We definitely wanted a drier track, because we have a lot of speed out wide.”Aspen coach Fred Waititi grew so frustrated with his team’s sloppy play in the first half that he shed his jacket and warm-up pants to take to the pitch in the second. The substitution paid off late in the match when Waititi grabbed the ball out of a ruck near Select’s try line and made a perfect pass to Howden, who dove for Aspen’s only try.”We were beating ourselves as much as what they were doing to us,” Waititi said. “To an extent, they didn’t let us play well, but our decision-making was poor. All I did was try to give them some direction, and it came off.”It’s not the way we would have hoped, but a win’s a win and it showed a lot of determination from us, winning the last couple of minutes. Yeah, we’ll take it.” Select broke a scoreless tie late in the first half when Jimmy Rapanui pulled a ball out of a ruck near Aspen’s end and ran untouched for a try.Morgan Harris, who missed two of Select’s three penalty kicks, was true on the conversion.Howden scored his first three points when he nailed a long Aspen penalty kick from about five yards behind the half-way line. Harris then converted another penalty kick, this one from the left hash, to give Select a 10-3 lead at the half.Blair said his side struggled with kicking all weekend, but it didn’t come back to haunt him and his players until Sunday.”We just didn’t kick well yesterday and it hurt us, and didn’t kick well today and it cost us the game,” he said. “That’s the bottom line. We felt we had the firepower to do it, and played the type of rugby we wanted to play today, but overall it was a very even match.”While the dramatic win was one for Aspen’s players to savor, players from both teams admitted it wasn’t ideal that such a close match had to come down to kicks.”We play Division I with a lot of those guys,” Adams said. “It’s always hard to lose in that fashion, and we definitely feel for them, but saying that, it’s great that the standard of rugby in the mountains is getting higher and higher. Those guys are a testament to that.””The conditions weren’t conducive to great rugby,” added Select scum half Greg Tarpey, who plays with Vail’s summer side. “You know, both teams are evenly matched in forwards and backs, so you know, it was good. I played D-I with Aspen in the spring, so half the guys are teammates, too. Freddy coached me in Vail. It’s bittersweet. I’ve been doing this for 13 years, and it’s the first final I’ve been in.”Other winners from SundayThe Virginia Cardinals – an Old Boys club made up of players from throughout the South and East – put three sides in finals at last year’s Ruggerfest, only to come home with no first-place trophy.Sunday, the contingent from Virginia – some 90 players strong – made sure not to repeat history.Virginia’s over-50 side won the earliest of the Sunday finals, downing the Colorado Old Pokes, 13-3. The over-45 Cardinals followed suit, winning their final against the Mountain Old Boys, 26-0. A clean sweep was not to be, however.In the over-35 final, Virginia fell to the Kansas City Blues.Nate Peterson’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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