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Sunday, August 7, 2016

2016 SkiTown Rugby Tournament

One of the finer things in this rugby life is the Summer 15s league in the Rocky Mountains. And easily one of the best parts of that is the annual SkiTown Rugby Tournament. It is the culmination of Mountain League play that is hosted by the clubs in America’s only Summer 15s league on a rotational basis. Vail RFC hosted the 2016 affair and from the pre-tournament get-together Friday evening in Vail’s teeming Central Business District, until referee Brighton Khumalo’s last blast signaling the end of an epic title match and this season’s SkiTown Champion, every aspect of rugby was superbly displayed.   
Competition Composition
For better than four decades the summer mountain 15s league has provided a crucible in which top-flight players from all over the world have come to test their mettle high in the Rocky Mountains: current USA Men’s Eagles front row, Chris Baumann, formerly kitted up with Steamboat Springs RFC; former USA Eagle stalwart, Mark Williams (37 caps), forever donned the Aspen jersey; and Vail’s pipeline to the Scotland national side has included the Hastings brothers, Gavin and Scott, as well as Scotland international hooker, Gordon Bulloch, and openside flanker-turned-writer, Ian Morrison. If one were to put together an all-star side of players who’ve worked the pill at altitude with attitude, one may rest assured that XV would be beyond formidable!
Cuomo, in red vest, walking his talk
Tournament Chairman and Vail Rugby godfather, Bart Cuomo, is well aware the importance of the competition: “SkiTown belongs to the mountains and when your town is hosting, it is a privilege. The core clubs: Aspen, Breck, Steamboat, Park City and Vail that play in our summer league are all about the rugby as you can see on the pitch today. It is both our honor and our job to perform host duties to the utmost of our capabilities,” reports the earnest steward of our game.
Pool Play
Bright and early Saturday beneath overcast skies and the threat of imminent downpour the action got underway as two pools of three XVs competed in round robin play. Vail RFC kicked off the day with a convincing, 33-7, win over Steamboat Springs and went on to take the pool after topping Gentlemen of the Blue Goose, Breckenridge RFC. Aspen upended Park City Haggis, 22-7, to open their account and then claimed first seed in their group with a win over a combined Crested Butte-Powderhorn side, called Crested Horn, in their second contest.
Semifinals
by afternoon, the clouds had largely burnt off and the remaining matches were played under ideal conditions in the shadow of the Gore Range's bared teeth
In the first semifinal, Aspen v Steamboat, the Men of the Roaring Fork Valley were down by seven nearing time in the half, but managed a converted goal of their own prior to the conclusion of the period to draw level at 7-for-the-house. Six halftime substitutions by Aspen’s savvy pilot, Cameron McIntyre, did the trick and all trys to Aspen in the second stanza and theirs would be the first ticket punched to the championship.
The home team earned their spot in the semis after pool victories over Steamboat Springs and Breckenridge. Coach Jason Hoke’s side, which also competes to great effect in the USA Rugby Men’s D-2 bracket, kept intense pressure on the Vail squad throughout the match, but homeboys topped the tallies by the end of game and it was to be an Aspen v Vail final.
SkiTown Champion
Aspen had travelled to Vail three weeks earlier for their league fixture and on that occasion the visitors were triumphant. In the return engagement, five lead changes and an instance of drawn scores with a handful of ticks left on the sir’s timepiece meant an absolute legendary blinder of a SkiTown championship.

Vail received kickoff and worked the near channels with success, keeping things close to their capable forwards while Aspen displayed their form with splendid communication along their three-quartersline. Referee Brighton Khumalo had cause to bring the captains together early on as unacceptable rugby was momentarily noted; Khumalo’s brief chat was followed by each captain conveying the field magistrate’s directives to their respective sides and the lads got back to the rugby.
Fullback Bryan Moroni got Vail aboard with a penalty struck from in front of the posts on the 22 and it was 3-0 home team in the 12th minute.
The Aspen reply came after a well-worked series of pick-and-goes got them past their opponent’s ten meter line and inside the 22 where a penalty was assessed for a Vail player laying about the breakdown in an unsportsmanlike manner 20 meters from goal. Quick tap by Aspen’s 8man, Grant Prior, and the canny backrow lock ghosted through the Vail defense for a grounding converted by former Rugby Colorado and Aspen Junior Gents star, Wiehan Pretorius, and it was 7-3 for the travelers after 23 minutes for the initial exchange of leads.
Vail grabbed advantage when ball swung through many hands saw flyer Ralo Wheeler turn the corner and speed into goal for a try that made it 8-7 as time waned in the opening period.
At the close of the half Aspen won their lineout, seven meters out from Vail’s goal. A bit of a maul transpired before engine Will Herborn broke off the edge and went short side, careering into goal for a fiver that brought the lead back to Aspen at 12-8 and the halftime tweet from Master Khumalo.
 The sides were as a pair of heavyweights: toe-to-toe, trading earth-cracking blows, neither team flinching nor backing off, and each absorbing what t’other brought to the pitch with gusto and grim determination.
Aspen began the second half on the front foot, but a wonky pass to touch reversed possession and the host was on the quick march into their adversary’s half of the pitch. Aspen regained possession inside their 22, but an attempt to run the pill out of that region went awry when lock (and Boulder Rugby captain) Paul Rohr poached the backline communication and stormed into goal to touch down for Moroni’s additional deuce, and Vail were back on top, 15-12, after three minutes of the second half.
Vail knocked-on in their own business district and it was scrumdown, Aspen-put, five meters from the Promised Land after four hammering phases on the door to goal. Scrum won, pickup by Prior, and that man banged into goal to put his side in front yet again, 17-15, in the 10th minute of the second stanza.
Aspen would extend its lead midway through the period after Pretorius stabbed a grubber into space, replacement Luca Davis collected it at pace, and Davis finished for a dot of five and a 22-15, Aspen lead.
Vail’s 10, Pete Barclay, punched a jouncer ahead for his own collection and try, but the score was disallowed as the assistant referee on the far touchline noted an infractive mishandle and the pill reversed possession, palpable tension ramping and coursing through the crowd strung along either sideline.
Homeboys hooker, Eliot Karys, took one against the head and ball spun swiftly to inside center Nik Griswold enabled his crash into goal and grounding converted by Moroni, and every man and his dog held a hand of double-2s as the end of the contest loomed.
Vail were awarded a penalty as an opponent was deemed to have not rolled away at the breakdown 10 meters from the Aspen goal. Tap-and-go was on and four phases of smashing, slashing crashes got the Vail forwards into goal for openside flanker James Fuller’s grounding with time expired, and a 27-22 result in favor of Vail RFC was recorded at Khumalo’s final whistle.
Scoring
                Aspen – Try: Prior (2), Herborn, Davis; Con: Pretorius;
                Vail – Try: Wheeler, Rohr, Griswold, Fuller; Con: Moroni (2); Pen: Moroni
Match Officials: Brighton Khumalo (Referee); Dylan Lewis, Joe Zevin (RAs) 

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