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Rugged Rugby Love

Fred Harper

You want the love? Here is the love.

On Monday and Wednesday nights, the forty or so players of the Gentlemen of Aspen Rugby Football Club show up at the Cory Point Riding Arena, a few miles down the Roaring Fork Valley. They wait while the horses are led away to the stables and, if necessary, help put away the jumps. Then they do their best to sanitize the playing surface.

"We have to get up as much horse manure as possible, and even then, you'd better clean your gear straight away after practice," says Mark Williams, the team's fly half, kicker, conscience and captain.

It would all seem ridiculous if not for the fact that running, passing, scrumming and, yes, tackling on the shit-flecked turf of the indoor horse corral is a marked improvement over past years. "Yeah, we train in a horse barn," says Williams, "but it's better than the elementary-school gym." Three dozen of the largest, strongest, fittest men in the state hurling themselves at each other in a space envisioned for ten-year-old tumbling exercises.

Here is the love.

Last year, Williams estimates, he spent $3,000 out of his own pocket to cover personal travel expenses incurred during the season. That doesn't include the money he lost because of time away from his work as owner of a painting business, another $3,500 or so.

Multiply that by forty, and you get close to a quarter-million dollars that the Gentlemen of Aspen diverted from their personal budgets to win the 2000 USA Rugby National Club Championship, in a complete and thrilling inversion of professional sports. "We all miss a lot of work," says Williams. "But that's okay. The guys understand it's a bit of a sacrifice."

Consider, also, that the Gentlemen of Aspen didn't just accomplish their national championship last spring, or the spring before, or the spring before that. They have won the past four titles in a row. Since 1995 they have lost only five times in 106 matches. This year they stand to equal a nearly twenty-year record held by the legendary Old Blues of Berkeley, California.

And the early signs are good. Three weeks ago the Gentlemen traveled to Boulder to play a pre-season scrimmage. Even though it was the first outing after they had been cooped up in a horse barn for two months, the game was a blowout, 52-8. "We have a lot of pent-up aggression when we finally get out on the grass," explains Williams.

The Gentlemen's success can be credited in no small part to Williams himself, generally considered the best fly half in the country. He picked up the game three decades ago while attending boarding school in Wales, drawn in by its strange patterns and rough, backyard vitality.

"I just fell in love with the game. It's a team sport, but one in which you have to think individually as well as collectively," he says. Unlike American football, a rugby squad plays both offense and defense -- all of it done during two virtually nonstop forty-minute halves. "And then there's the guys who play, the camaraderie," Williams adds. "The first thing I do after the match is find my opposite, shake him by the hand, get changed into a blazer and tie, and I'll buy him a meal."

In 1982, Williams was playing rugby in Europe when a fellow rugger suggested he try training at altitude. Williams flew into Aspen, planning to stay a year, two at the most, but instead settled in easily with the Gentlemen and the lifestyle -- skiing on Mondays and rugby on Saturdays.

Rugby is still a second-class sport in this country, one filled with amateurs, expatriates and latecomers, most of whom discovered the game in college, and then only because drinking beer on the field and slurring off-color songs afterward were part of the deal. Armchair athletes still consider the game a curiosity, a strange aggregate of football, soccer, wrestling and tug-of-war that you watch if you must because nothing else is on ESPN2 at five in the morning.

And while the American national team, a hastily formed collection of the country's best club players called the Golden Eagles, generally qualifies for the Rugby World Cup, it is considered an easy pass -- Jamaican bobsledders in shorts and cleats -- for the world's best teams.

Likewise, until fairly recently, Aspen had no storied rugby history. The team had done well enough in tournaments as a summer club, but in 1994, everything changed with the arrival of Brian Going, a member of a legendary rugby family. At one time, Brian played for New Zealand's mighty All Blacks rugby team, but he has since made his mark as a highly successful club coach. Seven years ago, in a coup, the Gentlemen convinced Brian to be their coach.

The following year, the team made the move into the elite USA Rugby field, and it didn't take long for the players to prove they belonged. In 1996 the Gentlemen placed third in the national championship, which took place in Chicago. They won the next year, and they didn't stop winning until they held the title, which they haven't lost track of yet.

"Usually, when a team wins as much as we've won, there's a downslide somewhere along the way," says Williams. But the Gentlemen have struggled to ensure that won't happen here -- not by pretending to be a big city, but rather by promising to remain a small town. When newly recruited players arrive, they are put up in a teammate's house.

Williams says, "One of us will say, 'We got a couch or room for two weeks until you get on your feet.'"

That is often handled by the team, too. As of mid-March, Williams had eight Gentlemen of Aspen working for his painting company. One was Isaac Mbereko, formerly of the Zimbabwe national rugby team, currently of Aspen. Last year, he broke off and started his own business. "The American dream," says Williams.

Even the occasionally stifling insularity of a small town has worked to the team's advantage. The Gentlemen live and die with their defense, holding opponents to scores half as low as the next best teams in the league. One reason, says Williams, is the shame. "If you missed a tackle that cost the team, you can't hide anywhere in town," he says. "You'll hear about it everywhere -- from the postman, from anyone you run into. No one wants that."

It's a gamble the players are thrilled to take, though, even those who are still playing rugby well past the age at which most athletes decide to ditch contact sports for a nice yoga session. John Sillich came to Aspen from New Zealand in 1985 to ski. "I didn't even know they had rugby here," he says.

Now 42 years old, Sillich is still playing. He occasionally talks about quitting the game, leaving it to the younger men who can handle the weekly beatings and long flights and short stays across the width of the country.

"We've all said that; it's a yearly thing," he says. "It gets harder and harder every year to get into shape." Mondays, especially, are a reality check. It takes longer to shed the pain from a physical weekend match than it did five years ago. But then spring comes, and the boys gather to begin tossing the ball and prying the horseshit from their cleats, and so he reconsiders. "I've been playing since I was five years old, and I'll keep doing it as long as I can," he says.

"I love the game," adds Mark Williams, who will turn forty in just four months. "I just love it. If you have the passion, everything it takes is worth it. Hell, I can hobble through another season."

This is the love.


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