Firsts survive close call
British import Antony Fitch does all the scoring for a shorthanded St. Albert squad in 20-12 win over Canucks
By: Jeff Hansen
| Posted: Wednesday, Aug 21, 2013 06:00 am
Ellerslie Rugby Park – St. Albert’s premier men’s rugby team did more with less in Saturday’s battle of attrition against the Calgary Canucks.
Lacking several starters against the second-worst side in the Alberta Cup table, the first 15 trailed 7-3 when winger Matt Herod was red carded for finishing off a tackle with excessive force with five minutes left in the first half.
Down but not out, the resilient firsts kept plugging away to score 17 unanswered points to beat the Canucks 20-12.
“It just shows massive work and massive heart from the boys to actually play a good 45 minutes against a full 15,” said British import Antony Fitch, the man of the match with two tries, two conversions and two penalty kicks.
Multiple substitutions throughout the second half gave the shorthanded squad a big boost in the comeback charge.
“Obviously we were missing key players but the players that did step in did a great job,” Fitch said.
Injuries, along with a number of players with the Calgary-based Wolfpack in the Canadian Rugby Championship circuit sitting out the team’s first match in three weeks, forced several line-up changes.
“We had a lot of players out of position today and they were trying their best. G.I. Joe (Mike Stapleford of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry) put in some good service in second row and he’s never been there really. Bomber (Justin Armitt) went into the centres and he hasn’t really been there for us either,” said Irish import Colum Murphy. “It really speaks a lot about this squad and the team we have and the players that believe in what we’re doing.”
The firsts stumbled out of the chute and gave up a converted try in the third minute.
In the 25th minute Fitch smartly split the uprights from around the 40-metre line after the firsts came close to crossing the try line a few times but lacked finish to complete the scoring plays.
Before the break, Herod lined up a Canuck on the wing with Calgary in attack mode inside the halfway line. After the Canuck released the ball, Herod wrapped up the player’s legs, lifted him up high and stuck him into the pitch with a loud and painful thud.
The Canucks viewed Herod’s tackle as violent, even by rugby standards, but his teammates and fans at field level gave the St. Albert Rugby Football Club president props for finishing his check.
However, referee Sandy Nesbitt sentenced Herod to the sideline for the rest of the match.
Herod’s status for the last two Alberta Cup tilts and playoffs is uncertain depending on the length of the suspension.
The firsts were lucky to be down only by four at halftime.
“In the first half we really didn’t play to our potential,” said Murphy, a 29-year-old prop from the Lansdowne Rugby Football Club in Dublin. “We spoke before the game ad nauseam about the breakdowns and making sure we won the collision. We talked about hammering the breakdowns and hammering the first hit and we didn’t really do that.”
A pep talk by head coach Jo Hull got the firsts refocused for the last 40 minutes.
“Jo had a few words with us and changed our game plan. We listened and trusted what the coach had to say,” said Fitch, a 19-year-old standoff from Wimborne, Dorset, England.
“We changed our tactics and kept it tight,” Murphy added. “Once we started doing what Jo said we actually played well.”
A thunderous romp down the middle of the pitch by burly prop Angus MacDonald into scoring territory led to Fitch’s penalty kick from inside the 22 seven minutes into the second half.
Twenty minutes later, New Zealand import Sam Norris slipped past several tacklers during a spirited run that ended inside the 22 before passing the ball off to scrumhalf Jake Robinson for extra yardage. Some rucking followed, with Fitch getting a clean ball to work with and he dashed under the posts for a try. His conversion made it 13-7.
A penalty kick by the Canucks from about the 40 was unsuccessful with under 10 minutes to play. Fitch’s second try was a lightning-quick dash and his conversion left the Canucks trailing by 13.
The ugliest match of the season by the firsts ended with an unconverted try by the Canucks. “It was very erratic. Obviously it wasn’t our best but we got the win,” said Fitch, who played a whale of game under dire circumstances. “It’s nice to actually score some points. It’s been a long time since I scored a try or two but I wouldn’t have been able to score any of those points at all without the team.”
Murphy sang Fitch’s praise after the must-win contest against the Canucks (2-8).
“Fitchy’s an alright lad for a Brit. He’s always capable of winning a game with a moment of magic. He’s always able to pull it out of the bag.”
The second straight win by the firsts raised their record to 5-5 with two matches left until the Ken Ann Cup north playoffs to determine the Edmonton Rugby Union rep at the Oct. 5 provincial final at Ellerslie.
“We’re playing every game now as though it’s our last,” said Fitch, a second-year St. Albert player. “Obviously today was another learning curve. We know we can’t play like this. We know what we did wrong and we’re training harder and faster than we ever have before.”
The firsts are back on the pitch this Saturday versus the Strathcona Druids (5-5) at 4 p.m. at Ellerslie. The last match before the playoffs is Sept. 7 against the notorious Clansmen (7-3), last year’s Ken Ann Cup champions. Kickoff is 4 p.m. at Airway Park. The two lowest-ranked teams in the north will battle in the Sept. 21 semifinal. The Ken Ann Cup final is Sept. 28.
“We fear no one,” said Murphy, a plumber by trade who was recruited by fellow countryman Johnny Moloney to play for his club team in Ireland, Cork Constitution, before joining the second-row electrician in St. Albert last year.
“It’s all about momentum right now. As long as you’re moving forward and winning, it’s all good.”