Ruggerfest rugby tournament back for 51st go in Aspen; starts Thursday | PostIndependent.com | PostIndependent.com

Ruggerfest rugby tournament back for 51st go in Aspen; starts Thursday

Austin Colbert
The Aspen Times

Brendan Walsh once represented the Gentlemen of Aspen Rugby Club on the pitch during the summer, but he never had the greatest of honors in playing in the club’s annual Ruggerfest tournament in the fall.

The native Australian was a standout for the Gents in 2004, back when Aspen competed in the high-level U.S. Rugby Super League, of which it won a few national championships in the late 1990s and early 2000s. But getting to play in Ruggerfest is something altogether special.

“I was the leading points scorer in the Super League across the nation and I broke my orbital and couldn’t finish the season off,” Walsh said Wednesday from Wagner Park in downtown Aspen. “Maybe there is a bit of unfinished business to come out and say I’ve had a game on Wagner. I’ve brought the boots all the way over so I’m going to have a run.”

Walsh has hopes of finally getting into Ruggerfest this weekend when the tournament is held for the 51st year in a row. The rugby spectacle, which was first held in 1968, predates the Aspen club by a year. The Gents celebrated their milestone 50th season this summer.

“It’s all about the history of the club,” said Gents coach Will Herborn, himself a native of Australia. “The reason this club exists is because of this tournament. It’s a great part of the history of this beautiful town.”

Like it does every year, Ruggerfest has brought in a handful of former Gents players, including Walsh, who directs a rugby club back in Australia. Aspen means more than just rugby to Walsh, as he met his wife here all those years ago. Now 37, he hasn’t been back to Aspen since 2004 when he played for the Gents.

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“We lived at Highlands and it was great to go back there. We went in the shop my wife used to work at and her boss is still there in the store and he remembered her,” Walsh said. “It’s good to walk around town again and go into the same bars and see some of the new bars and catch up with some old friends and meet some new friends, as well. It’s a great town. It’s a really good atmosphere here. It’s got a good perspective on life and rugby and everybody is here to have a little bit of fun.”

While the summer league is certainly competitive, Ruggerfest amps it up a bit with sides and players that truly understand the game at a high level. Herborn compared Ruggerfest to rugby being played at an NCAA Division I level, if not better. A random pro or national team all-star making an appearance on the pitch during Ruggerfest isn’t out of the norm.

As for the Gents, they have the added pressure of being the host team. They’ve won Ruggerfest 20 times, the last coming in 2015. Aspen has played in the championship the past two years, as well, losing both times to the Dark ‘N Stormy Misfits. As they do every year, the Gents like to put together a Ruggerfest roster of players who have a previous affiliation with the Aspen club.

“It’s guys who really know what they are doing on the field, which makes it really interesting for people watching,” Herborn said of Ruggerfest. “We’ve got a couple of boys who have played in the previous Ruggerfests that have come back out. A few familiar faces for some people. Obviously there are some of our boys who played the summer season, which obviously contributes to continuing the culture in this community.”

The 2018 rendition of Ruggerfest will have six different divisions, including the featured men’s open division. There is a Masters (35 and over) division, to go with three different divisions for the Old Boys (45s, 50s, 55s), as well as a five-team women’s division.

Play gets underway Thursday with the 45s and 55s. Friday will be the Masters and the 50s, while the women and open division plays on Saturday. Matches are played on both Wagner and Rio Grande parks.

The finals for all six divisions will be held Sunday at Wagner.

“Maybe Will might let me on? I might have to sneak on for a couple of minutes some game,” Walsh joked, saying he’s most likely to play on the Gents’ 35s side. “Whoever wants to have me, I’ll play.”

For a complete schedule of games and for updated results, go to aspen-ruggerfest.com.

acolbert@aspentimes.com