Firsts pumped for playoffs
St. Albert premier men's team drills Druids 32-22 for ninth win in 10 matches
Wednesday, Aug 20, 2014 06:00 am
With two matches remaining prior to the playoffs the fantastic firsts are in the driver’s seat to reach their sixth Labatt’s Cup provincial final in seven years.
Last year’s premier men’s finalists are a near-perfect 9-1 after polishing off the Strathcona Druids 32-22 Saturday at the St. Albert Rugby Football Club.
“We’re ready to go,” declared winger Brad Angove after running wild for two tries. “We’re a lot more organized than we have been in the past. We’re also determined this year. Last year left a bad taste in our mouths (losing 47-10 to the Calgary Hornets at Ellerslie Rugby Park).”
In the Alberta Cup table, four of the five teams in the north square-off in the semifinals and the winner of the Ken Ann Cup final Sept. 13 at Ellerslie will ruck and maul the Calgary Rugby Union rep in the Oct. 4 provincial final at Calgary Rugby Park.
If the playoffs kicked off today the first 15 (league-high 263 points for/against differential) would host the Nor’Westers (2-7) and the Druids (6-4) would line up against the Clansmen (4-6).
Unless the lads fall flat on their faces against the host Nor’Westers this Saturday at 4 p.m. or the Clan next Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at SARFC the first premier pennant since 2009 is a done deal.
“Things feel good this year,” Angove said. “As a team this year we have more confidence than before about provincials and we’re willing to work harder for it.”
The firsts were anxious to butt heads with the Druids after the Sherwood Park-based club stopped their seven-game winning streak with a 13-8 decision.
“It was a really important win for us obviously. We’ve been training hard for it. They handed us our only loss this season,” Angove said.
The Druids ended the first half with an easy penalty kick in front of the posts to lead 16-12.
“We had a discussion about coming out hard right off the beginning of the game because we’re a team that has a tendency to come out slow or has in the past and today we didn’t do that. We came out hard in the first 20. Unfortunately we kind of let it slide off for the second half of the first half of the game but we pulled it together and played with heart in the second half,” Angove said.
The firsts started with a bang as Jason Carton finished off a vigorous burst by an inspired Adam Higgins in the sixth minute and Antony Fitch kicked the conversion.
The second penalty kick by the Druids in a four-minute span was successful in the 15th minute.
Graham Noren’s second try in two matches put the firsts up by nine in the 29th minute.
Noren, a prop by trade who was slotted at eight man in place of injured captain Brett Kelly – the John Wayne of the firsts is likely done for the season with a nasty knee injury suffered in the first half in the previous weekend’s 29-24 come-from-behind thriller against the Calgary Saints (5-4) at SARFC – flashed a pose similar to the famous Rio de Janeiro’s statue of Christ the Redeemer after busting into the try area.
The Druids closed out the first half with a converted try after the firsts fumbled the ball away in front of their 40-metre line and the visitors ran it back untouched and then converted a pair of penalty kicks six minutes apart as the SARFC fans screamed “rubbish!” over the questionable calls.
Orrin Farries of the firsts was also yellow carded over some skulduggery late in the first half and the flanker was sentenced to the sin-bin.
Three minutes into the second half Angove’s try and Fitch’s low bullet on the conversion attempt near the touchline that barely cleared the crossbar put the firsts back on top at 19-16.
Irish import Conor Power presented Angove a gift ball to unwrap in the try area.
“A guy went to tackle me but it was pretty high so I was able to bend and push him off me and I got up and got going again and then once Brad got the ball he ran a nice line and finished very well,” said Power, who split time in the centre positions in the second half.
After the firsts returned to full strength with Farris back in the lineup the Druids tied it with a penalty kick between the 22- and 40-metre lines.
On the next play the firsts regained the lead on a spirited try run by Power.
“Adam (Gowing) put a nice pass right out to me and nobody was in front of me. It really tested my hamstrings a bit,” said the product of the De La Salle Palmerston FC and Old Belvedere RFC, an All-Ireland division 1A side.
Angove’s second try of the match, another solid run orchestrated by his teammates, left the Druids reeling down 29-19.
“The forwards really set us up well so that we could succeed out wide when the ball came there,” said Angove, who gave the Druids fits with his explosive footwork with the ball.
With the festivities drawing to a close the Druids kicked a penalty and two minutes later Gowing pulled off a stunning drop goal in the rain against his former club.
Power stressed the key to victory started up front.
“We won the game through our forwards. Our forward pack dominated and set the momentum for the game and then we kind of took our chances. Brad on the wing finished very well,” said Power, noting some subtle tweaks at halftime put the firsts on the fast track to success. “We simplified some things for the forwards, took our time and played with a bit more structure and basically found space out wide and that’s how you win.”
Head coach Jo Hull also saluted the forwards for spearheading the charge.
“Forwards, what did you have for breakfast? That was really, really well done,” Hull said in the team’s post-game huddle. “The biggest thing for me was our ball retention today. We sorted out some crazy offloads but that ball retention on the ground was absolutely fantastic.”
Hull and assistant coach Simon Hill cracked the whip after the firsts underperformed on Druids Day last month.
“It feels good to shut them up after the way they celebrated last time,” Hull said with a dagger in her voice. “Every single one of that lot up there (another standing-room only crowd on SARFC’s four tier deck) is proud of you but me and Simon are really proud of you guys today. That took a lot of work. The last two, three weeks have been a tough slug.”
Lessons were learned by the firsts in the loss.
“We identified a few areas where we felt they were weak so we targeted that. They were also missing a few of their up front players,” Power said.
Both teams didn’t field their main starting 15 because of player commitments with the Calgary-based Prairie Wolfpack in the Canadian Rugby Championship league. Injuries also took their toll on the player base for the firsts but they persevered.
“We had guys stepping into new spots. Chad (Monai-Brophy) is only 18 years old and did a fantastic job at 10 (standoff) for us. Fitchy is a great 15 (fullback). He hasn’t played it that much for us this year but today he did a fantastic job,” said Angove, 24. “We’ve got a lot of depth and we all train hard together so we should be able to put together a team regardless.”
Power, 31, is confident the firsts would be competitive in the division two All-Ireland league.
“Back home there is a bit more experience but here the guys are learning the game very fast. The more they play the better they get. I’ve also noticed over here the guys are very athletic and they’re all very strong in the gym and that’s not a bad thing,” said the coveted free agent who followed his sweetheart to Edmonton and was quickly snapped up by SARFC. “I was very lucky to find St. Albert. The guys on the team are all very welcoming. I couldn’t have picked a better team.”