Old guard meets new as Aspen Ruggerfest kicks off
Aspen Times Staff Writer
Death, taxes and Mark Williams.
Williams, the most decorated player on the most decorated rugby club in American history, will make his 19th consecutive appearance with the Gentlemen of Aspen this weekend at the 35th annual Aspen Ruggerfest.
Though he has already twice announced his retirement ? after Aspen captured its fifth-straight U.S. national championship in 2001 and then in June, after U.S. title No. 6 ? Williams is back in Aspen’s signature red-and-black.
“How can we have Ruggerfest without Mark Williams?” Aspen coach Brian Going said with a knowing chuckle this week.
“He’s ready and willing to play for me. That’s the way he put it, and I love it.”
The native of Wales made his Ruggerfest debut in 1984 before organized rugby leagues or national championships. And what started as a summer of training at altitude with the Gents became a lifelong passion, the valley his home. Now 42, Williams has an 18-month-old daughter, Mary, with wife Jenny, and a painting business in Carbondale. In between, Williams established himself as Aspen’s all-time leading scorer, by a longshot, and represented the U.S. national team for 13 years.
“There’s the nostalgia, sure, but for me it’s also about competing,” Williams said Wednesday.
Before Aspen’s national championship-winning run began in 1997, with the advent of an elite national-level league, Ruggerfest was what the Gents played for.
“Back then, this was our national championship,” Williams said. “It was the biggest thing for everybody. But today, still, if we give ourselves two goals every season: win Ruggerfest and win the national championship.”
For the last six years, the Gents have accomplished exactly that. Aspen has won 13 Ruggerfest crowns all told, including the last six to go with the six-straight U.S. titles.
“The great thing about Ruggerfest that makes it probably the most unique thing in the world ? and not just in America, there’s nothing like this anywhere ? is the small town. I’ll see guys I played against 25 years ago. They come from all over the country, so it’s great to see each other and socialize, but once you’re on the field, it’s all about the game,” Williams said.
“And then, the great thing about rugby is that no matter what happens between the lines, you shake hands and have a coupla beers together.”
The 35th installment of Ruggerfest kicks off this morning with over-45 old boys pool-play at Wagner Park. The over-35 old boys pick it up on Friday before championship division action opens Saturday morning. A total of 39 teams are entered in the tournament, with final matches slated for Sunday at Wagner.
Williams, who played with Aspen’s winning A-side and over-35 side in last year’s Ruggerfest, will be with the A-side when Aspen opens against the Eastern Rockies Rugby Football Union Select team at 10 a.m. Saturday at Wagner. (Incidentally, the ERRFU side will feature several Gents who don’t make Aspen’s 22-man roster.)
“I’m going to be there to cover spots I think,” he said, perhaps understating things. “Just in case something happens to one of the younger guys.”
Following the 2002 U.S. national championship game, several Gents fixtures announced their retirements, including Dougald Gillies, Ian Walker, Bo Buck and Williams. With the exception of Williams, the exodus opened the door for a younger generation of Gents. (That being said, Gents captain Jason Walker noted this week: “Some of the guys will probably be on standby anyway; I know all of them have offered their services.”)
The new guard, including Jason Walker, Rata Going (the coach’s son), Alec Parker, Karl Siteine and Monte Earl, will be expected to assume new leadership roles. Williams sees the transition as an opportunity, rather than an obligation.
“They were in the backseat before, but now they’ve taken over the running of the team,” Williams said. “We have a certain way of doing things, a winning attitude that’s passed on by example. And now that the reins have been handed over, it’ll be interesting to see how they do.
“There’s a lot of guys who are nervous in a good way, but we always seem to do well under pressure anyway.”
And then there’s players like Chris Comstock, a prop for Aspen. Years ago, playing winter rugby in San Francisco, Williams was teammates with Comstock’s dad.
“And now I’ll be playing with his son. I’m doing that quite a lot lately,” he said with a laugh, “and I feel pretty lucky about it.”
[Tim Mutrie’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org]
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