Firsts back with a bang
Premier men pull victory from the jaws of defeat in Saturday's grand re-opening of the St. Albert Rugby Football Club fields
Wednesday, Aug 13, 2014 06:00 am
The triumphant return of the fantastic firsts to their beloved home pitch was worth the long wait.
Saturday’s scintillating 29-24 come-from-behind verdict against the Calgary Saints rocked the foundations of the St. Albert Rugby Football Club to the delight of their loyal fan base.
“Oh man, it feels so great,” said an awestruck and blood-splattered Paul Flynn, as an overflowing deck of suds-soaked supporters saluted the lads with a standing ovation. “It’s been a long time coming. We’ve been off this field for two years now and it just feels so great to be in front of our fans and hearing the cheers of the crowd. It gets under us and gets behind us and it lifted us to a win today when we were behind the whole time.”
The SARFC fields, ranked as one of the most pristine in Canada before environmental concerns — the facility was built on top of an old landfill site, resulting in leachates from the old dump migrating into the area’s waterways — led to reclamation and outdoor facility enhancement projects that started in August of 2012.
Without a home base the men’s, women’s and junior teams were forced to take their show on the road and training sessions were held on school fields.
When the first and second fields were re-opened on Aug. 1, the hype surrounding the Alberta Cup showdown was on par with any playoff match in the modern era of SARFC, established in 1981 with the clubhouse officially opened in 1985.
“It was very emotional today because it was our first game back at the church,” said Antony Fitch, a 20-year-old standout who accounted for 14 points as the scrum-half in the first half before switching to fullback and then standoff during the last 40 minutes of the gallant comeback charge. “What we did today was unbelievable, especially how we battled back. There was no way we were going to lose. That would’ve been unacceptable.”
It was grim at times for the firsts as the visitors opened the scoring in the fourth minute — a free ball was scooped up near the 40-metre line by the Saints and returned untouched into the try area and the conversion attempt was good — and in the 31st minute a penalty kick from outside the 22-metre line made it 10-0.
The firsts recovered to drive the ball deep into Saints’ territory and Fitch’s try and conversion capped it off in the 34th minute.
A couple of minutes after Fitch’s try, the Saints were unsuccessful on a penalty kick from outside the 22 on an angle. It was one of several penalties against the firsts in the first half as fans voiced their displeasure over the officiating.
With one minute left until the break, Fitch split the uprights from inside the 40 to knot the score.
“There were some nerves for sure at the start, especially playing at home for the first time in such a long time,” Fitch said. “Our fans were really excited to see us so we had to pull it together and started playing better.”
In the second half, with superlative captain and eight-man Brett Kelly sidelined with an injury suffered prior to Fitch’s game-tying boot, the Saints wasted no time in the opening seven minutes tacking up two converted tries on SARFC’s electronic scoreboard. On the first try the Saints broke through several tackles en route to the try area and on the next score they picked off a pass around the Calgary 40 and went the distance.
Fourteen points in only a few minutes was a slap in the face for the firsts.
“The turning point for us was when they scored directly after the half. We realized we actually had to work for it,” Fitch said.
In the 54th minute Graham Noren’s try under the posts and Fitch’s conversion cued the comeback. Only a sniper’s bullet was going to stop the determined Noren from completing his punishing run as the crowd went wild.
After a difficult penalty kick by Fitch from in front of the 40 that fell short of the posts, the Saints lost a key cog in their pack to injury. The firsts continued to press with deep penetration before Jason Carton chugged over the try line in the 74th minute. Fitch’s conversion was unsuccessful.
With time ticking down on the firsts trailing by two they survived a brief scoring threat by the Saints to mount another drive but Adam Gowing’s drop goal attempt from outside the 22 was no good.
The Saints then kicked the ball down field, Gowing reeled it in and with Duncan Maguire-calibre speed zipped past several defenders before dishing the ball off for second-half sub Mitch Millett to finish off the play of the game with barely two minutes remaining and the hometown fans roaring their approval. Fitch’s conversion sealed the deal on one of the most memorable moments in SARFC history.
“We were damaged and battered with injuries today,” Flynn said. “We used almost a full bench and to come from behind at the end of the game like this using every sub, it shows the depth of this team and the heart of this club.” He needed 10 stitches to close an ugly gash on his forehead, the same spot that required nine stitches to fix another rugby mishap earlier this season.
“We also know we’re a second half team and nobody can play as fit as we play and nobody can play as long as we can play,” added Flynn, a mighty presence at hooker. “As it got to the latter parts of the game they would get tired and we would capitalize.”
In the post-game team huddle head coach Jo Hull heaped praised on the players for their gutsy performance in the face of adversity.
“I never saw a team work and fought until the end like that before. There were moments of individual brilliance but there was so much courage out there today and so much heart. People could hardly even walk and we carried on,” Hull stressed. “It wasn’t the easiest game and it wasn’t the most clinical game, but that heart and passion in front of that crowd you have no idea what that means.
“Thank you to the boys that stepped up into this team this weekend. Every single one of you has earned that shirt today. Your heart and your soul was in that win and as a coach that’s all I want.”
Both teams were missing players to the Calgary-based Prairie Wolfpack in the Canada Rugby Championship league. The firsts were also lacking national 7’s speedster Maguire, out for the season with a broken ankle, but despite several starters not in the lineup against the plucky Saints (5-4), last year’s Labatt’s Cup provincial finalists recorded their eighth win in nine matches. It was also a remarkable turnaround from the last match, a disappointing 13-8 loss to the Strathcona Druids (6-3) in Sherwood Park.
“This is going to set the tone for the rest of the season. We’re not stopping until the provincial final,” said Flynn, who celebrated his 32nd birthday against the Saints. “We got tripped up (by the Druids) a little bit, but it just showed us we’re not as good as we think we are. But we are good enough to win this league and that’s what we’re focusing on every game until the end of the season.”
The firsts host the Druids on Saturday at 4 p.m.