Firsts rip Clan rivals
St. Albert premier men's rugby team kicks off Alberta Cup fixtures with statement win against the Clansmen
Saturday, May 17, 2014 06:00 am
Airway Park – The fantastic firsts of St. Albert rugby quenched their thirst with the sweet taste of victory in Thursday’s lid-lifter against their bitter archrivals.
The firsts rolled up 19 unanswered points after the Clansmen booted a long wind-aided penalty in the fourth minute to win the Alberta Cup confrontation 19-3.
“It’s always a big win when we beat the Clan,” said captain Brett Kelly with a satisfying grin etched across his battle-scarred mug. “The boys played hard. It was a good effort by everybody, especially in this wind. It was tough out there.”
Tries by prop Chris Butlin, New Zealand product Shea O’Hallahan at fullback and winger Matt Jarvis and two conversions by standoff Adam Gowing, a primetime addition from the Strathcona Druids, produced all the points the firsts required to ruin the Clan’s home opener.
“It’s huge for us to start off like this, especially when we’re against the Clan, and to hold them to only three points is big,” Butlin said.
The Clan struggled advancing the ball against a defensive line that refused to wilt when pressured.
With under 15 minutes remaining, and the firsts in command leading by 16, the Clan crossed the try line three times in a span of eight minutes of intensity but the ball was held up every time by the resilient firsts. Byron Elliott wrestled away the second of the three non-tries as the Clan shook their heads in disbelief over its inability to touch the ball down for points.
“Our defence was great. That last stand we had, when they had three balls over the line but they were all held up, the boys did really good,” Butlin said.
The firsts dug deep in the scrums, attacked the rucks with a sense of urgency and tackled like wild animals.
“We didn’t give them many breaks with the ball. We went at them hard and wore them down,” said Kelly, one of several defenders to stick the Clan with bone-rattling tackles.
After the Clan opened the scoring the firsts controlled the ball against a raging wind while gradually pushing their way down field. The forwards flexed their muscles and the backs made good use of the balls presented to them for yardage.
“It was hard with the weather. We tried to play an open game but with the wind and everything we had to play pretty tight,” Butlin said.
It was a total team effort on Butlin’s try in the 29th minute as the firsts ran the Clan ragged. Scrum-half Jake Robinson quarterbacked the lengthy drive with smart ball distribution. His spin pass from near the touchline around the 22-metre line flag put the wheels in motion for Butlin to play the role as finisher to perfection on the scoring play.
“We recognized we had an overlap on the left so we called it out and Jake got it to the left side and we were able to punch it in,” said the 35-year-old Butlin, who ran the pitch like a frisky colt throughout the contest.
Late in the half the Clan were unable to capitalize on an overlap and were stopped short of the try line.
The Clan also lost a player to an infraction and before the half ended missed the posts on a penalty kick.
After the break, and the Clan still short a player, a quick tap-and-go by Elliott caught the Clan by surprise as the firsts stormed forward. O’Hallahan’s plunge into the try area was converted by Gowing to make it 12-3 in the 44th minute.
Nine minutes later Jarvis scored a cheeky try with a romp down the touchline. Gowing split the uprights with the wind on his side.
“In the second half we stuck to our game plan and we built on it. Jo (Hull, the head coach) gave us some good tips at halftime and we tried to work that into the half. We know we’re a fitter side so we kept the foot on the gas and it worked out,” Butlin said.
The win was third in a row against the Clan, dating back to last year’s 32-6 result in the last match before the playoffs and 32-5 conquest in the Ken Ann Cup north final.
The firsts finished 8-6 overall as Labatt’s Cup provincial finalists and the Clan was 7-6 overall.
“They’re our main rivals and a team we have to beat,” Kelly said
The firsts were also successful Thursday without three key starters in the lineup: flashy runner Duncan Maguire of the Team Canada sevens, physical forward Kyle Gilmour and enforcer Adam Bontus. The trio also play for the Calgary-based Prairie Wolfpack in the Canadian Rugby Championship circuit.
With only two men’s teams this year the talent pool is deeper in the forwards and backs to fill the starting 15s on the first and seconds.
Kelly is encouraged by the potential of the firsts with some new faces and quality imports.
“We’re going to be strong. We just have to work hard to be successful,” he said.
The firsts will see how good they really are next Saturday against the Calgary Hornets at Calgary Rugby Park. The firsts have lost eight straight to the Hornets, winners of three Labatt’s Cups in a row and four in the last five years. Last year’s disappointing 47-10 showing in the final marked the third time the Hornets beat the firsts for provincials honours. It was also the fifth appearance in the final in six years by the firsts, with the only championship in team history celebrated in 2010.
“It will be a good test for us. It’s a game we definitely want to win,” Kelly said.