Firsts battle Clan in playoff clash
Winner of Ken Ann Cup in premier men's rugby goes to provincials
By: Jeff Hansen
| Posted: Saturday, Sep 28, 2013 06:00 am
St. Albert and the Clansmen renew their hostile rivalry in today's playoff rumble for the Ken Ann Cup.
Kickoff is 4 p.m. at Ellerslie Rugby Park between the north finalists in Alberta Cup premier men's rugby.
“For us to win the north final would be huge. First off, it’s bragging rights in the city. The Clan and St. Albert have a huge rivalry. We have for years. It should be the provincial final,” said Duncan Maguire, a dynamite game breaker in the backs, prior to Tuesday’s training session at Wild Rose field.
The playoff survivor will scrum down against the Calgary Hornets, winners of three of the last four Labatt's Cup provincial championships, or the Calgary Saints next Saturday at 4 p.m. at Ellerslie.
“These boys want this win for the club and I’m pretty excited about it,” said Jo Hull, head coach of the 7-5 first 15. “There is a really, really good feeling amongst the team at the moment in terms of belief.”
It’s the fourth straight year St. Albert and the Clan will slug it out for a provincial berth. Last year the Drive for Five by the firsts hit the ditch in a devastating 61-15 loss to the big, bad Clan in the north final. The worst loss during an underwhelming 6-8 campaign in 2012 slammed the brakes on four-straight trips to provincials, highlighted by the first Labatt’s Cup in team history in 2010.
“For us to beat them, if all goes well on game day, is going to be really big for the guys,” Maguire said. “They do have a very strong pack and we know they do have some key players that are really strong as well. Hopefully we can shut them down, but we’re ready for anything. We’re preparing for their strongest team that they have. All the guys are very focused and looking forward to it.”
The last tilt before the playoffs was a memorable 32-6 triumph on the Clan’s home field Sept. 7.
“It was huge. It got everyone’s morale up and the boys now believe in themselves a bit more. It was a big confidence booster and everyone’s spirits are high, so that’s good. We need that going into big games, but we’re not taking it for granted because anything can happen on the day,” Maguire said.
The win, worth four points in the table, snapped a four-game losing streak against the Clan dating back to last year. The firsts finished one point ahead of the team to fear after a dominating four-try performance in the second half, including two scores in the last 10 minutes to secure the bonus point.
Both squads finished tied at 7-5 for third place, but the bonus point catapulted the firsts into the north final with 37 points, one more than the Can.
The Hornets finished first at 10-1 with 50 points and the Saints placed second at 9-3 with 44.
“We knew we needed to score four tries but first and ultimately we needed to win the game,” Hull said of the contest that was tied at six at halftime. “In the second half we changed a few things and the guys had real belief in what we were doing with the game plan. They showed real character to get that score. It was also a huge boost for our confidence because we knew we could do it, it was just a case of execution on the day.”
The firsts logged extra training sessions leading up to today’s showdown.
“We know what we need to do to beat the Clan and this week it’s kind of building on that performance,” Hull said. “Our preparation has been pretty good in terms of the intensity. The guys are on the same page. They’re all pretty clear about what we need to do to win the game and that’s focusing on doing the little things right. That will be the difference.”
The firsts are playing their best rugby since 2011, with fourth consecutive wins and five in the last six matches going into the playoffs.
“Everything is coming together, compared to the beginning of the season where we had a different 15 every weekend and now finally we’re getting a solid 15 and everyone is working together,” Maguire said.
It took the firsts longer than expected to gel into a serious playoff threat after two victories in their opening six matches and both were against the winless Calgary Irish.
“We had a slow start to the season but the Saints’ game (50-5 to improve to 4-5) was a real turning point for us. We played very well against the Hornets (the week before and lost 34-28 in Calgary) and the Druids (42-27 to go 6-5) and then to play the Clan like we did showed we’re gradually getting to where we want to be and we’ve put ourselves in the best position we can for this weekend,” Hull said. “The intensity at training and just the attitude of the boys has been absolutely outstanding in terms of their willingness to learn and then develop and get better but we’re not resting on our laurels. It’s going to take eighty minutes and we’re going to have to play well to win but the good thing is we’ve got the belief. We’ve also got more strength in the team now. There is more strength in positions and people know they have to perform to keep their shirt.”
The firsts are expected to field their most talented line-up of the season. Maguire, forward Kyle Gilmour, scrum-half Jake Robinson and centre Adam Bontus are starters who played for the Calgary-based Wolfpack in the Canadian Rugby Championship league. Captain Brett Kelly and forward Johnny Moloney also dressed for the Wolfpack in last Saturday’s 40-19 loss to the BC Bears at Ellerslie. Maguire and Gilmour, both high school rugby products of the St. Albert Skyhawks, scored tries against the Bears. Maguire is the top try scorer in the CRC circuit with six.
Wednesday it was announced that Maguire, Gilmour, who has played for the national 7’s team, and Andy Tiedemann, a national team prop and Wolfpack player from St. Albert, and forward Kyle Baille of the firsts and The Rock in the CRC, were named to Canada’s 25-man roster for the IRB Americas Rugby Championship next month in Langford, B.C.
The return of Maguire to the firsts after injuries curtailed his brilliance on the pitch last year coincided with the team’s dramatic turnaround. Surgery to fix Maguire’s right shoulder over the winter reduced his role to cheerleader in the first half of the 2013 fixtures.
“I feel great. I’m finally injury free,” said Maguire, 24, a fullback by trade who spent time on the wing with the Wolfpack and in the last game against the Clan was at outside-centre.
“I had to take a bunch of time off with my shoulder and rehab and strengthen it before I came back so I wasn’t around at the beginning of the season but it’s great to be back and playing with the guys again. It’s a lot of fun,” added Maguire, who was sporting a shiner at training but was reluctant to say who gave him the black eye.