Firsts pack playoff punch
St. Albert knocks out Strathcona Druids for a shot at the Clansmen in the Alberta Cup north final
By: Jeff Hansen
| Posted: Wednesday, Sep 12, 2012 06:00 am
Ellerslie Rugby Park – The Drive for Five is still alive after St. Albert’s premier men’s rugby team staved off elimination in the Alberta Cup playoffs.
The first 15 will challenge the rival Clansmen in the Sept. 22 north final after a heroic defensive stand withstood a desperate second-half comeback by the Strathcona Druids in Saturday’s 37-25 thriller.
The St. Albert-Clansmen winner advances to provincials Sept. 29 in Calgary. The firsts have been to four consecutive provincial finals, losing three times and winning the Labatt’s Cup championship in 2010.
“We all obviously want another shot at the provincial final,” said winger Matt Herod, president of the St. Albert Rugby Football Club. “We want to be champions again.”
The rough and tumble Clan, ranked second in the premier table at 8-4, trumped the firsts three times in four matches this season: 53-12, 18-16 and 40-6.
The firsts, fourth-place finishers at 5-7, doubled the Clan 40-20 in June.
“They’ve shown they deserve to be the front-running Edmonton team at the moment,” said standoff Andrew Marsden. “But if the team Gareth (Scott, the head coach) picks is something similar to what we had (Saturday), we’ll go a long way and I would put a lazy 20 on us to beat them.”
Saturday’s line-up was the strongest the firsts dressed this year.
“A huge advantage for us is we’ll have the same players back on the 22-man roster,” Herod said. “For the first time all season we’ll play the same 15 that started (Saturday) as far as I know it and that is going to make a big difference.”
The firsts staggered into the playoffs with four losses in a row – the longest winless streak since 2006. Injuries, suspensions and player commitments in the Canadian Rugby Championship circuit forced Scott to field different line-up combinations.
The return of inside-centre Adam Bontus and scrumhalf Jake Robinson from the Calgary-based Prairie Wolf Pack and the insertion of British import Antony Fitch at fullback helped push the firsts past the Druids. The teams split the four-game season series, with the Druids finishing 5-7 and two less bonus points than the firsts.
“The change for us was just literally having our best players back in the fold,” Herod said. “We have game changing players in Jake and Adam. Jake, in my opinion, was the MVP of that game. When Adam is in the lineup it changes the other team’s offence because they do not run into his channel. You could see that even on my try [in the 63rd minute to make it 30-13]. I didn’t have to do anything but run my line. Everyone went to Adam. They know he is one of the strongest players on the field and guys like that draw the attention.”
The firsts never relinquished the lead against the Druids after winger Matt Jarvis roared into the try area in the sixth minute.
Tries by Fitch in the 32nd minute and Robinson in the 35th minute and two long penalty kicks and two conversions by Marsden lifted the firsts into a commanding 25-6 halftime lead.
After a converted try by the Druids, Herod’s kick-and-chase down the left touchline from outside the 22-metre line put the firsts on top by 17 points.
Unrelenting pressure by the Druids produced a converted try in the 67th minute and a short kick-and-chase with eight minutes to play cut the lead to five points.
Play of the game
The firsts were on the brink of giving up the game-tying try when Marsden put his kicking skills to work. The Druids rucked their way close to the try line, when a pass went haywire and Marsden bolted after the loose ball and kicked it down the field. The Australian import never broke stride and caught up the bouncing ball past the halfway line and gave it another boot. At about the 20 Marsden tracked down the ball and was able to secure it for Fitch with five minutes remaining.
“I just went with an instant reaction. I knew it was an all-or-nothing play. If I missed that first kick they would’ve had an overlap and probably would’ve scored. In hindsight would’ve I changed it? No. I wouldn’t have changed the decision,” said Marsden, who also converted the try.
“I got that first kick in and then I went to pick it up but I figured my safest option was to have another kick at it. For the record they were both off my right foot and I’m a natural left footer.
“I went to get it again and by that time I was pretty fatigued so I just dove on the ball to recycle it. I did get my hand on it, and thank goodness Matt Herod followed up. He managed to come in and I got a little pop off to him and he hit Fitchy on the outside. Jarvis was right there as well. You’ve got to give it to the supporters on that one. I wasn’t alone out there. That’s the way St. Albert is, you’re never alone.”
The firsts spent the majority of the second half under their posts and the Druids charging forward.
“It was a game of two halves. We did what we needed to do in the second half not to lose it and we put a little distance there at the end, which was the difference,” said Herod, 29.
The firsts lost the services of captain Brett Kelly with a left knee injury. The 2011 Edmonton Rugby Union senior men’s MVP was hurt at the end of the first half. The powerful eight-man started the second half with his knee taped up before subbing off after two minutes.
“Brett Kelly is a world class player. When a player like that goes off it’s a big loss for us but it showed character in the club to stay the course and persevere,” Marsden said.
Bontus and rookie Trent Bennett at second row were also sidelined for a spell with bloody cuts suffered on the same play early in the second half.
Marsden, 29, credited the forwards for making the firsts look so good.
“The true superstars of the day was the forward pack. They won the scrums early and got us on the front foot. They really dug deep to make some key plays,” he said.
The leading candidate for the team’s most outstanding player award knew the firsts were headed to victory before the opening kickoff.
“We warmed up like champions today. We had hardly any drop balls. I can remember two and I had my eye on the ball pretty much the whole time,” Marsden said. “We came in with the right mindset and no doubt we’ll do that again in a couple of weeks for the Clan.”