SARFC is pitch perfect
Today's premier men's match against the Calgary Saints at 4 p.m. celebrates the re-opening of the St. Albert Rugby Football Club fields following the completion of the redevelopment project that started in August of 2012
Saturday, Aug 09, 2014 06:00 am
The St. Albert Rugby Football Club celebrates the return of “The Game Played in Heaven” to its Riel Recreation Park facility in today’s premier men’s match between the fantastic firsts and the Calgary Saints.
The 4 p.m. kick off will officially christen the completion of the reclamation work and outdoor facility enhancement projects that started in August of 2012.
“We’ve been looking forward to this date for almost two years,” said SARFC president and player Matt Herod at Thursday’s training session. “We’re excited. We’re expecting a really big crowd. It’s the first game back for the prems and it’s the only game that day and it’s all on the big stage.”
The first and second fields re-opened for business last Friday while the third and fourth fields are close to playing shape.
“Having our hallowed ground back is huge for us,” said veteran prop Graham Noren, who is thrilled the “travelling road show” is now over. “It’s been a big kick in the butt for us not playing at home with the crowd behind you.”
The initial grand re-opening of the grounds was moved from June 28 to July 12, but issues with the grass, drainage and the irrigation and fertilizer systems forced SARFC to push back one of the most anticipated days in club history.
“We’re getting back to what we’re used to doing for years,” Herod said. “It’s not just about getting the fields back it’s the simple things, like having everyone at one spot and back to familiar grounds. With all the changes we’ve kind of been like travelling gypsies for a little bit.”
SARFC teams were forced to play the odd home match and train at the Wild Rose and Alpine fields while the grounds were ripped up and the firsts haven’t entertained fans in St. Albert since July of 2012 as Ellerslie Rugby Park became their home away from home.
“We’ll be fired up. We’ll have the crowd obviously geared up for the game having the fields back,” Noren said. “We’ve got an extra tier to the deck to fill so we’ll have our crowd behind us and the Old Boys will be up there in full force.”
The best deck in St. Albert before the field closures has now been upgraded to a sprawling four-tier structure, constructed through the assistance of a City of St. Albert Community Capital Grant.
The top tier was packed with spectators soaking up the sun and suds Thursday night while the firsts trained on the premier pitch and the women’s team was on the second field preparing for today’s semifinal against the host Strathcona Druids.
The SARFC U17-U19 junior girls also played the Clanswomen on Tuesday as a test match on the new fields before the Alberta Cup showdown.
“There are smiles everywhere around here and we’ve been waiting for that,” Herod said. “It’s just a great feeling knowing that your fans, even at practice, are on the deck drinking their beer and watching us. The Old Boys, who really want us to succeed, are now out watching us again. We’re getting back into that familiarity of what we’re use to.”
The old SARFC pitches were rated among the very best in Canada.
“In terms of the quality they seem pretty good,” Noren said of the new playing surface. “It’s a little harder on your foot which could mean a little bit of a faster track but it hurts a little more to get tackled on. It’s also level. We don’t have any dips anywhere.”
Herod, 33, believes SARFC, whose motto is “A Club And A Half”, is stronger than it’s ever been because of the adversity with the fields closed.
“It’s not like we’ve lost that pride but you can definitely feel that bond has just tighten a little bit. It’s always been a very tight-knit group but you can just feel it even more,” said the versatile scrumhalf, winger and fullback.
Today’s main event between the firsts (7-1) and Saints (5-3) will kick-start SARFC’s playoff run towards its sixth provincial final in seven years.
“There is definitely an extra step with the guys. The fact that we’re back here and we’re having a successful season is kind of an extra kick in the ass before playoffs come to really get the mojo going again,” Herod said. “There is definitely some motivation to come out and really put our stamp on the league and say we can take everyone in the south.”
Both teams will be missing players because of commitments with the Calgary-based Prairie Wolfpack in the Canadian Rugby Championship league. A handful of firsts, including a pair of forwards in Johnny Moloney, last year’s team MVP, and national-level player Kyle Gilmour, will be replaced by a strong core from the second division squad with premier experience.
“Are we fielding what we want to be our premier final’s team? By no means,” Herod said. “But we have guys playing in seconds that are getting some looks that are going to get a really good shot at taking a shot at maybe putting themselves on that 22-man roster (for the firsts in the playoffs).”
The match was originally scheduled for May 10 but the Saints were unable to travel to Ellerslie to play last year’s Labatt’s Cup provincial finalists.
“The Saints are having a good year. They have kind of resurrected their club as a whole and they have some quality players,” Noren said. “We’ve also got a bunch of good young talented players here in terms of what we’ve had in the past. A lot of the old guard are kind of still kicking around but we’ve filtered in a lot of young junior prospects and a couple of good imports so we’re a handful for any team in this province.”
The firsts are coming off their first loss of the season, 13-8 against the Druids (5-3) in Sherwood Park. A disturbing lack of ball possession, intensity and offensive flair was the team’s major downfall.
“After a week off after that loss we’ve done some work and some talking and some soul-searching so I think we’ll be fine. We’ll bring our A game,” said Noren, 30, who is back rucking and mauling with brute strength after taking last year off to recharge his batteries.
The highly-respected captain of the 2010 winners of the Labatt’s Cup sees favorable comparisons between the firsts and the only premier men’s provincial champions in SARFC history.
“In terms of the personnel we’ve got some quality imports and good character guys, which is not to say we haven’t had before. We have a really good core of guys that are all buying into the same thing and we’re playing better than I’ve seen as a team. We have a pretty expansive game that we can pull out at any time and I know a lot of it has to do with Jo Hull’s coaching. She’s been great here for everybody,” Noren said. “I think having to play under the stress of not having a home turf for the last couple of years has also really solidified the core that’s been through that. We’ve been dealing with the hardships of not having a home field and we’ve seem to kind of bonded as a club a little more. Everybody always comes out and tries to take St. Albert off its throne and I think we’ve had to play harder lately not having the fields. It’s like its us against the world kind of thing.”