Now in its 45th year, this weekend’s Ruggerfest shows signs of growth amid the changing landscape of national rugby tournaments.
Due to the down economy, more professional teams have dropped out of participating in the national rugby circuit called the Super League, potentially opening them up to compete in Aspen’s Ruggerfest, said event spokesman Jim Spann.
The disenfranchisement of the Super League is generally good for rugby because the league diverts funds and players from smaller club tournaments, Spann said. Still, other rugby tournaments like the Golden Oldies that take place during the fall in Hawaii and the Rugby World Classic in Bermuda continue to draw potential competitors away from the Aspen tournament, he said.
Overall, the number of participants is up compared to 2011. This year, there are about 30 teams with more than 700 players from around the world participating in the tournament, including the local team the Gentlemen of Aspen, known as the Aspen Gents. Last year there were only 24 teams that competed.
Since its inception, other rugby tournaments have fallen by the wayside while Ruggerfest has maintained its following and has become one of the leading tournaments in what is known as the old boys divisions, which feature players older than 45, said Curt Hacker, who has been selling shirts and gear to rugby players in Aspen for almost 30 years.
As the tournament has grown in years, so have the players who attend it, Hacker said.
On Thursday, players commingled with spectators on the sidelines watching a match at Wagner Park. One or two in uniform were bandaged from minor injuries that occurred in earlier play.
Roy Brewer, who has been attending the tournament for 28 years, helped a teammate on the Florida Old Boys ice his hamstring. Brewer worked his way up from the open division featuring young players to the over-55 division, he said.
“It’s always been tight competition,” Brewer said of Ruggerfest. “We’re just glad that they keep adding divisions so that we can keep playing.”
The Florida Old Boys didn’t win their first match on Thursday against the Sons of Beaches, but hopefully they’ll do better in their next one, Brewer said.
This weekend, must-see matches include one between the 2011 champion, the Denver Barbarians, and the Willing from the United Kingdom, who lost in the finals last year to the Barbarians, Spann said. Barring an upset, the two teams are expected to face off for a second time in this year’s final in the open division on Sunday at 3:45 p.m. Meanwhile, the Aspen Gents could take on Super League champions, the Glendale Raptors, on Saturday afternoon, depending on early wins.
With the 2016 Olympics bringing back rugby for the first time since 1923, organizers are expecting new attention and interest to be brought to the sport. Ruggerfest will likely grow from that newfound interest in the upcoming years, Spann said.
Meanwhile, the Aspen Rugby Club struggles financially, like many recreational sports do. One longtime Aspen Gent, Buddy Ortega, said that without additional funding the club could go away, he said.
“The tournament is always going to be here,” Ortega said. “But the club is always hanging on. We need that benevolent beneficiary from Red Mountain ... Finance is everything. No matter what.”