Juniors tackle U19 playoffs
Provincial contenders finished first in league play
By: Jeff Hansen
| Posted: Saturday, Aug 18, 2012 06:00 am
The next generation of St. Albert rugby stars are showcasing their skills with the U19 provincial contenders.
The majority of the juniors have also shone in the men’s division for the first, second and third division teams during a rebuilding season at the St. Albert Rugby Football Club.
“When you come from tackling 250-pound huge men to these junior guys, who seem small in comparison, you feel a lot more brave,” said inside-centre Matt Lomas. “It gives us more confidence.”
The bulk of the team is comprised of players from the Bellerose Bulldogs, Paul Kane Blues and the St. Albert Skyhawks, the metro Edmonton city conference champions and fifth-place finishers at Tier II (3A schools) provincials.
After the high school season the juniors kicked off the U19 fixtures while giving the men’s teams a boost with their speed, size and talent.
Several juniors also train on a regular basis with the club veterans.
“When you’re with the older men, not only do you get that experience but you see people playing your same position who are way ahead of you skill-wise. That’s when you start picking up the little things and the little things are what wins games,” said standoff Neil Coghlan.
Last week a number of the juniors played U19, thirds and seconds in the Edmonton Rugby Union.
“We’ve got a lot of experience,” said Lomas, 18. “We all play with each other two or three games a week so it helps us bond.”
Wednesday’s 22-12 win over the fourth-place Strathcona Druids at the Wild Rose Elementary School field in the last game before the playoffs lifted the 4-0-1 juniors into first place.
The teams scrummed down in Friday’s semifinals, but the score was unavailable at press time.
The winner battles the Clansmen’s A or B team in Wednesday’s final at 7 p.m. at Ellerslie Rugby Park. The ERU champion advances to provincials next Saturday at Calgary Rugby Park.
“We don’t want to get too overconfident in the playoffs,” Lomas said. “We just have to come out hard and smash teams.”
A 22-all draw with Clansmen A last week spoiled the juniors’ quest for a perfect record.
“We came first in the league but if we don’t win a playoff game it doesn’t mean anything,” said Coghlan, 18.
Tough and talented
Wednesday’s result was typical of the team’s stellar performance this summer.
“We had dynamic poise on defence and when we had the ball we swung it wide,” Coghlan said.
The juniors gradually wore down the Druids after trailing 12-10 at halftime.
“We usually come out a little slow but we’ve got a quick, fast and good team so when they slow down we come back and hit them harder,” Lomas said.
Coghlan opened the scoring with a penalty kick from outside the 22-metre line in the third minute.
Three minutes later the Druids jumped ahead with a try off a kick and chase that bounced in their favour.
Early in the second quarter Ollie Clarke rattled off a thunderous run for a try and Coghlan kicked the conversion to make it 10-5.
The Druids replied with a try off a penalty and the conversion attempt barely split the uprights.
The Druids continued to press for more points, but tenacious tackling by Christian Otto and the rest of the juniors kept the visitors out of the try area during a long defensive stand. Another dangerous drive ended with a penalty against the Druids deep in scoring range.
The half closed with the juniors inside the 22 during one of their few marches into Druids territory in the second quarter.
“Sometimes we’re a bit average in the first half or we’re on par with the other team,” Coghlan said. “In the second half our depth shows and that’s when we find the holes and exploit the weaknesses of their team. That’s when we show that we’re the overall better team.”
The juniors were short a player for most of the third quarter, after hulking eight-man Trent Bennett was sentenced to the sin-bin with two minutes gone in the second half. The Druids were unable to capitalize with the man advantage because the juniors dominated ball possession.
Two minutes into the fourth quarter the juniors scored off a lineout ball from outside the five-metre line. Lomas finished off a series of passes along the try line to put the firsts on top 15-12.
“I was actually surprised our forward [Nathan Gies] passed it to me, and then I pretty much walked over the line,” said Lomas.
The Memorial Composite High School graduate from Stony Plain has been a club fixture since U14.
“I love the game. I love to play it,” he said. “Junior is just another opportunity to come out and play with some good guys and get some touches on the ball.”
With seven minutes remaining Brent Wells punched in the insurance try with some physical force. Coghlan nailed the conversion.
“We’re a much fitter team and that shows in the second half. We’re able to do the same stuff that we’re doing in the first half, whereas they can have a very strong first half but their second half collapses and that’s when we strike and finish them off,” said Coghlan, a high school rugby product of the Paul Kane Blues who played U17 last year.
The match also marked the return of Bennett, Robert Blunden and Jake Mentz from Team Alberta’s U18 silver medallists at the National Championship Festival in Sherbrooke, Quebec.