Hornets sting firsts – again
Third time in five years Calgary Hornets beat St. Albert's premier men's rugby team for Labatt's Cup provincial honours
By: Jeff Hansen
| Posted: Wednesday, Oct 09, 2013 06:00 am
Ellerslie Rugby Park – The Labatt's Cup final was close until the opening kickoff, then it went horribly downhill for St. Albert's first 15 against the powerhouse Calgary Hornets in premier men's rugby.
The Hornets smartly marched the opening kick into St Albert’s try area during the opening 48 seconds, as the perennial provincial champions romped to a convincing 47-10 victory in Saturday's anticlimactic playoff showdown.
“We didn’t play to our potential,” said a crestfallen Jo Hull, head coach of the firsts, in the post-game huddle. “To be honest with you we were beaten by a better team today.”
The loss is the fourth in five trips to provincials in the last six years by the firsts.
It’s also the third time the Hornets stung the firsts in the final and all three championships were staged at Ellerslie.
“It’s disappointing for sure,” said a glum-looking Brett Kelly, captain of the firsts who played second row. “A lot of guys have been in this situation before. It’s a long winter coming off a loss like that.”
The firsts rolled into the final as winners of five in a row, including the 32-5 thumping of the rival Clansmen in the Ken Ann Cup north final for their sixth victory in seven matches.
“To come off the win we had last week and to play like we did today is disappointing but that's championship rugby. That's the way it goes. They were better than us today,” Hull said after the cup presentation, as the Hornets’ anthem Black and Yellow by rapper Wiz Khalifa blared in the background.
“We really believed we could win it and that's the upsetting thing because I knew we could’ve won it, we just didn’t execute today,” Hull added. “They were a lot more clinical than us today and our execution just wasn’t what it should be. We also wanted to be a lot more physical with them and we weren’t as physical as what we should’ve been.”
The provincial triumph was the third in a row and fourth in five years for the Hornets, the Alberta Cup pennant winners four straight years.
The win was also the eighth in a row against St. Albert.
“That's the first time against them that we really shored up the defensive side of the ball to make it a little more one-sided,” said James Buchanan, the Hornets’ inside-centre.
The 13th win in 14 matches this year brought out the very best in the Hornets.
“It was a complete effort on our part,” Buchanan said. “When you’re on top of the league and had a great season like we did, sometimes you can get complacent in areas and I feel that was the first full game we put in. The attack defence, the sets; everything was great.”
The Hornets’ domination of St. Albert includes scores of 58-10 in June at Ellerslie, 34-28 in July in Calgary and the finals in 2009 (24-22 to knock off the undefeated firsts) and 2011 (31-13 to halt an 11-game winning streak by the 2010 champions).
“Hats off to St. Albert because they're always the stiffest competition in the province that we get. It’s always a fast-paced game and it’s usually a high-scoring game,” said Buchanan, who is joined by second-rows Spencer Massiah and Bruno Payette as the longest-serving Hornets in Saturday’s starting line-up.
Both teams had strong representation on the Calgary-based Wolfpack in the Canadian Rugby Championship league this year, in addition to players making Team Canada for the upcoming IRB Americas Rugby Championship in Langford, B.C.
“St. Albert is a strong club and we’re a strong club. It’s always the best game of the year and that's what we look forward to,” said Buchanan, a Wolfpack player who finished the final with two tries.
But to whip the firsts by 37 points in the biggest game of the year was startling.
“I knew we had the capability that we could do it if we really got everything clicking,” Buchanan said. “In finals’ rugby it’s hard to put up a score like that so I’m super proud that we did.”
The firsts looked like they just missed last call after the final whistle, following seven tries by the Hornets and two penalties and two conversions by scrum-half Gordie McRorie.
“Honestly there’s lots that went into it,” Kelly said of the most lopsided margin of defeat by the firsts at provincials in the modern era of the St. Albert Rugby Football Club. “They just outplayed us. They put the pressure on and I thought we handled that at the start, and then we let one or two get away from us for tries.
“They were the better team today.”
The firsts never recovered from the Hornets returning the opening kickoff for an easy five points.
“It was a surprise in the first minute. It caught us off guard at the start. A lucky break. Missed tackle. That's the way it went,” said Kelly, one of nine players on St. Albert’s 22-man roster for provincials who dressed for the 2011 final, compared to 10 for the Hornets.
Hull described the TSN turning point as “a shock to our system.”
“They came at us straight away. They got that first try and then they built their momentum,” she said. “We couldn't get possession of the ball and it’s very difficult to score when you don't have the ball.”
Buchanan, 28, finished off the play of the game with a short burst over the try line.
“The boys were hungry for it and I was lucky to be on the end of it. Coming out of the shed and getting a touch right off the bat is what you want because everyone is fighting for it,” Buchanan said. “To score like that lifts the pressure off because everyone in a final gets pre-game nerves and they’re a strong thing so that helped me get settled in. It really takes that weight off. It’s like, ‘OK, we’re playing now.’”
After the try the firsts showed good form with a strong push back but settled for a penalty kick by standoff Troy Jeffs, a chip shot between the five- and 22-metre lines in the eighth minute.
McRorie replied by splitting the uprights on penalties from just outside the 22 in the 11th minute and from between the 22- and 40-metre lines in the 18th minute to lead 13-3.
In the 24th minute, and in close range of the try area, the Hornets spun the ball to the right side to lead by 15.
A penalty kick by Jeffs at an angle from outside the 22 was unsuccessful in the 32nd minute.
Leading up to the attempt was a great individual effort by fullback Sam Norris to put the firsts within striking distance of points.
Penalties by the firsts on the Hornets’ side of midfield were a major problem in the opening 40 minutes. A lack of a consistent attack also contributed to the 18-3 halftime deficit.
The Hornets continued to fire on all cylinders in the second half, despite an unsuccessful drop goal in the 47th minute and McRorie’s missed penalty kick in the 51st minute.
Two minutes after McRorie’s attempt, he spun the ball out from outside the five for Johnny Elliott’s try to seal the deal.
It was 35-3 when scrum-half Jake Robinson finished a pick and go from in tight of the try line and Jeffs added the conversion.
The last two tries by the Hornets came in the last 10 minutes of play.
McRorie finished 3-for-7 kicking conversions.
The loss left the firsts at 8-6, compared to last year’s 6-8 mark as north finalists.
“I’m proud of the boys for the season they put forth. You've got to take the positives out of it and build on it. There is so much success we’ve had in the season and there are so many guys who represented the Wolfpack and are going to the Americas championship too,” said Kelly, 24.
Hull also found a silver lining during an interesting campaign in which the firsts looked like a fourth division team at the start before cranking it up to become the toughest nut to crack next to the Hornets.
“I’m really proud of the boys and what we’ve achieved this season and how we’ve developed as a team,” said the first female head coach of a premier men’s rugby team in Alberta. “To get here was good. The right teams were in the final.”