The Steamboat Springs Rugby Football Club has come a long way in its 32 years.
"Back in the '70s, we'd pick up hitchhikers and make them play. Now we've got 28 people coming to practice," said Billy Wernig, a veteran fixture who has played with the club since 1975.
Despite the growth under coach and fullback field general Michael Hurley, Steamboat has one difficult feat to fulfill -- the team has been unable to beat the Gentlemen of Aspen Rugby Football Club since 1978.
Boasting a storied rugby tradition and the home of both members of the U.S. Men's National Team and the country's largest rugby tournament, Aspen provides a unique international breeding ground for clubs that is unparalleled by the other four Colorado clubs participating in the Mountain League.
In its home opener Satur--day at Whistler Park, Steamboat came out fired up after its close loss to Vail on June 10.
Allowing Aspen to score the first try of the match, Steamboat outside center Max Cleary answered with a try of his own. After intercepting a pass, Steamboat marched right back down the field with an explosive try scored by inside center Jimmy Gardiner.
Then, Gardiner, a New Zealand native who has played rugby since age 5, injured his shoulder and spent the rest of the game on the sideline.
Steamboat could not carry the momentum of its first-half scoring flurry, and the Aspen squad ran away with the match, 58-12.
Aspen captain William Lipp, a Scottish citizen who spends summers in Aspen for altitude training, is a perfect example of the recruited, semi-professional athletes playing on the solid Aspen team.
"We brought college guys in from Iowa, Oklahoma, Scotland and, of course, all the Southern Hemisphere spots," Aspen coach Steve Blair said.
Hurley was disappointed in his team's showing but was enthusiastic about getting every member of his squad, many still learning the sport, a chance to experience playing against an elite team.
"On a positive, we have never put two tries on Aspen in probably 20 years," Hurley said.
Steamboat plays its next match against Breckenridge at 4 p.m. Saturday at Whistler Park.
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