There was a time when the Gentlemen of Aspen were the best amateur rugby club in America, and before Major League Rugby was launched in 2018, that meant they were the best rugby team in America. Period. Founded in 1968, the Gents’ era of dominance started in the late 1980s and culminated with seven Rugby Super League and USA Rugby Division 1 Club national championships between 1997 and 2002.

But by the mid-2000s, just as the sport’s popularity grew in the U.S. and became more professional, culminating with the launch of Major League Rugby, the squad’s success tapered off until, eventually, it stopped competing at a national level. Today, the Gents play in the Rocky Mountain Rugby League. This weekend, though, the team has the chance to add to its record books: winning the Aspen Ruggerfest (free; September 14 through 17) for the third straight year.

“It’s only been done twice in the history of the club,” says coach and former Aspen player Ben Mitchell, an Irish rugger from Cork who also plays professionally with Major League Rugby’s Seattle Seawolves during Aspen’s offseason. “So if we could get three, we’d get a little bit of the history of the club.”

Winning Ruggerfest may not be on par with claiming another national title, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a big deal. The annual tournament, which the Gents host, is baked into the history of the club. In the 1960s, an Englishman named Steve Sherlock came to Aspen to ski, and after noticing how many internationals with experience playing rugby lived and worked in the town, he decided to host a tournament in Aspen’s Wagner Park. Then he put a team together to play in it. “So the club actually emerged from Ruggerfest,” Mitchell says.

The Gentlemen organization has maintained a global flavor throughout its 55-year history, with the current roster being an almost even split between Roaring Fork Valley locals, transplants from the rest of the country, and international players like Darren Barth, a South African. “When I finished college, I was looking for something to do for a year, and I had some friends that played for the Gentleman,” Barth says. In 2016, he decided to play in Aspen for a single season. “I haven’t missed one since.”

This year’s Ruggerfest, which always takes place on the third weekend in September, features 24 amateur clubs from around the Western U.S. competing in six divisions ranging from 60-plus-year-olds to the men’s and women’s open categories, the tournament’s top tier. After three days of preliminary matches, which run Thursday through Saturday, the finals for each division will be played Sunday. “There’s nothing like it in terms of rugby tournaments in North America,” Mitchell says. “You could easily have 1,500 people around Wagner Park watching. That’s pretty impressive, and I don’t think there are many club rugby games in the country that would get a crowd like that.”

If you’re unfamiliar with rugby and want to catch a match or two, Barth suggests simply finding a guide. “Just grab onto someone in the crowd who looks like they know what’s going on,” he says. “That’s the quickest way to learn.”

Or don’t bother learning at all. “It’s just fun to watch,” he says. “There are big hits and a lot of excitement, so it’s definitely an easy sport to follow even if you don’t really have a 100-percent clue of what’s going on.” There will also be live commentators, music during halftime and between matches, food vendors, and two bars on site. It’s all part of the sport’s famous culture of hospitality and bonhomie, where it’s expected opponents will party late into the night after pounding each other into the turf all day. “Sunday night is always a big night,” Mitchell says, “and if we win, that usually rolls into a big day on Monday as well. We definitely test the town’s beer reserves.”

Nicholas Hunt
Nicholas Hunt
Nicholas writes and edits the Compass, Adventure, and Culture sections of 5280 and writes for