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Aspen Ruggerfest Brings Blood, Sweat and Beers

Jamie Lynn Miller's picture

Crouch. Touch. Pause. Engage. And drink beer, preferably dark and most certainly plentiful: it’s important to stay hydrated during Aspen Ruggerfest. Guinness and Stout, two seasoned rugger Rottweilers, lay on the sidelines basking in the sunshine while Scott Poindexter from Colorado’s Harlequins walks by shaking his head.

“Yeah, he kicked me in the face,” he says to a woman with a concerned look on her face: “Is it bleeding?” Yes, it is; blood trickles down his nose, mixing with sweat and fatigue but Scott seems unfazed, ready to head back into the action.

Over by Wagner Park, at the Prospector Lodge, you can watch all the action from the hot tub. There’s Joe Ford, known for his Prospector parties and for his steaks which, presumably, can also be enjoyed in conjunction with those therapeutic jets.

Longtime local fans Mary Kent and Stephanie Thurston look forward to the annual mayhem, quenching their thirst on bleachers and at barbeques and taking in all the action: “It’s a knock down, drag out, beer-swilling good time.”

The camaraderie is as fierce as the competition. “You get to play with your mates you grew up playing with, and you get to play against those guys you grew up playing against,” says 24-year Ruggerfest veteran Mark Price, member of the Team Harlequin and owner of a wine importing business based out of Denver, Colorado. Like many of the players, Price played rugby in college and club teams and thoroughly enjoys the competitive, spirited environment of the annual event. “Aspen Ruggerfest is the last bastion of old school rugby culture,” he explains, enthusiastically.

Aspen Ruggerfest kicked off this Thursday, September 17 and continues through the weekend at Wagner Park, Rio Grande and various watering holes around town. Matches take place in the over 35, over 45, over 50 and over 55 categories, with the open division on Saturday still to come, featuring competitors from all over the world and across all the age groups. “It’s not a drunken party…but we’re going to drink and party,” says Mark, with a smirk. From the luau at the Limelight, to the epicenter of rugger action at Bentley’s, one doesn’t need to look far to find a cold drink and a thirsty man to go with it.

Rugby is an international sport whose constituents are often well-traveled, broad-minded and professional career men who’ve crossed the world to be part of the game. “You can be in any country around the world and walk into a rugby bar and not know a soul and suddenly, you’ve found a new mate; rugby players are a brotherhood for life,” says Anthony Pons, a player from Oklahoma.

Harlequins vs Virginia: High-Sports Action on the Rio GrandeHarlequins vs Virginia: High-Sports Action on the Rio Grande

“Play a great sport, take in the great weather & have a few refreshing beverages,” remarks rugby player and sports apparel designer Adam Kopp, who’s been coming to Aspen Ruggerfest since 2000. “Two old guys threw a friend and me in the back of their pickup and we drove all night, ending up at the Prospector. We partied all weekend and came back the next year and although I’ve missed a few years, there’s always been someone representing Room 101 at the Prospector.” he declares.

This year, Adam's company, Madak Designs (www.madak.com), created the new t-shirts sold across the field. His business is sports apparel, from logos, branding, marketing to jerseys, hats, anything which represents a team. “Rugby is like a family,” he continues. “It’s a great feeling knowing you’re going into battle with the person next to you, and you trust he’ll be there when you need him. I’m passionate about the club’s overall vision, and I’m excited to be here this year and see the new look,” he says, of the new shirts.

“Saturday’s open division is great to watch: the fit, the fast and the foxy!” says Naomi Price, a longtime rugby fanatic who met her husband, Mark, at Ruggerfest many years ago. “But today should be an interesting day,” she continues: “New Zealand’s team is really good, Brothers for Life are down a few men, and really hung-over; although, we play them at 4, so they might not be hungover by then.”

Naomi discovered rugby during college in Nebraska. “I was tutoring a guy from Aspen, actually, and one weekend he invited me to check out a match. He was like, ‘Bring some pretty girlfriends and you all can drink for free!’ I thought I needed to bring a bunch of gals with me, to get in on the free beer; I quickly realized that all girls drink for free, always. I remember thinking, ‘I like this sport!’”

She grew really passionate about the game itself and headed to Europe for the World Cup, in Wales. That same college friend had given her an Aspen Ruggerfest poster and she swore she’d get there, too, one day.

When she finally did get to Aspen, she met Mark at a barbeque. She was wearing a quintessential rugby hat and he asked where she got it. “I told him ‘At the World Cup, in Wales’; he says that’s when he knew he was going to marry me,” she recalls, with a laugh. It was love at first beer, so to speak, and the two were married just over four years ago.

Indeed, many rugger girlfriends and wives met their matches at Aspen Ruggerfest. A couple kicked off this year’s festivities in a ceremony on the pitch, or field, at Wagner Park, while 14 wives traveled from New Zealand, via San Francisco then train, plane and bus to Aspen, to support their spouses. The extended holiday has included Pier 39, Alcatraz and the perfect patchwork quilt of colors across Aspen’s mountains

Back out on the Rio Grand field, the Kiwi team performs the Haka, a traditional Maori war dance from New Zealand, just prior to the match and just prior to beating the Harlequins. “The goal today is to make the finals,” says Mark, of the day’s remaining matches.

And if they don’t?

“If we don’t make the finals, we drink heavily,” he declares: “Lose two, then barbeque.”

Most teams come together just once a year to play Ruggerfest; and then there’s that team from Virginia. The Virginia team is talented, actually practice more than once a year and is known as a perennial powerhouse: “They suck less,” says Shane Skubis, an animated rugby veteran and fellow Harlequin, doling out one-liners in between matches.

Regardless of field time, Aspen Ruggerfest draws lifelong players, once the best of the best; the competition is fierce and your game needs to be tight. “If you’re bringing your team, you better bring your team,” declares Mark. “Aspen Ruggerfest is one of last classic tournaments in the U.S.,” explains Mark. “It’s the grail for old boys. It’s full-stop!”

Turns out, the Brothers for Life weren’t that hung-over by 4 p.m. and New Zealand is, well, New Zealand; unfortunately, the Harlequins didn’t make the finals. But they aren’t down for long; it’s too nice out to not drink dark beer with girls.