Firsts flex mighty muscles
St. Albert premier men's rugby team is 10-1 with one match remaining before the playoffs kick off
Wednesday, Aug 27, 2014 06:00 am
Nor’Westers Field – Saturday’s preview of the premier men’s north semifinal between the fantastic firsts of St. Albert and the Nor’Westers ended as expected.
The runaway leaders in the Alberta Cup table rolled up a commanding 22-3 lead in the first half en route to the 32-17 win against the Nor’Westers, 2-8 in their first premier campaign since 2006 after recent success in division two (unbeaten last year as the Alberta and Edmonton Rugby Union champions and winners of the 2011 ERU playoff cup).
“We talked about that a lot in the dressing room. We knew we had to put a statement on this game and not get bossed around the pitch. We had to come out and man up and show them that this is premier rugby and welcome them to it. This is how you play it,” said Angus MacDonald, a tower of power at tighthead prop for the 10-1 firsts.
The teams will butt heads Sept. 13 at the St. Albert Rugby Football Club to determine who will scrum down against the Strathcona Druids (7-4) or the Clansmen (4-7) in the Ken Ann Cup final Sept. 27 for the right to battle the Calgary Rugby Union champion in the Labatt’s Cup provincial showdown Oct. 4 in the Cow Town.
“We’re taking it one step at time to get to that final. We’re going to keep working hard and stay focused for the playoffs,” MacDonald said.
The last match before the playoffs is Thursday against the hated Clan. Kickoff is 6:30 p.m. at SARFC.
“We’re going to need a big effort against the Clan. They’re our rivals,” said Irish import Jason Carton, a raging bull at loosehead prop.
There will be blood spilled on the pitch by the bitter combatants, who have duked it out in the last four Ken Ann Cups and the third victory over that stretch by the firsts was last year’s 32-5 thrashing.
In the Alberta Cup lid-lifter in May the firsts grinded out a 19-3 decision on the Clan’s home field. It was the third win in a row against their Edmonton foes after a jaw-dropping four consecutive losses.
“It’s going to be something sweet to play them at home now that we have the pitches back,” MacDonald said. “However, it’s still another building block for us as we work our way into the playoffs.”
The firsts are striving for consistency in their quest to compete in the sixth provincial final in seven years and ultimately win their first Labatt’s Cup since 2010 and the second in SARFC history.
“That’s what we’ve got to keep building on,” stressed head coach Jo Hull in the team’s post-game huddle. “Every game we’re building and we’re improving and that makes me happy but we’ve got to keep going.”
There were plenty of positives against the Nor’Westers, who struggled mightily to match the physicality, skill level and the will to win of the firsts.
“You guys showed glimpses of excellence out there,” Hull told her players.
An intimidating forward pack dictated the outcome.
“We wanted to keep it tight for the start and beat them up for a while,” Carton said. “To be fair to the Nor’Westers they put it back to us. We had our purple patches and they had their purple patches but all around we had good structure and we were on top of them in the scrums. The last couple of weeks we really put a big emphasis on scrummaging at forward. We want to beat teams up front and if you want to go wide on us you have to earn the right to go wide.”
Jake Robinson made a triumphant return to the first 15 with four tries in the opening 45 minutes after a right knee injury sidelined the slippery scrum-half for a spell. All four tries were forward driven as Robinson finished off unrelenting pressure for points. His last try made it 27-3.
“It was just a brawl. They’re a real physical team. I think maybe the first 10 minutes we kind of stayed back on our heels and they really came at us and then we just found ourselves and turned it on,” MacDonald said. “It was all about the rucking. They really wanted to throw in the bodies at the rucks so we just had to match that and match the physicality.”
The front row prowess of Paul Flynn, a pit bull at hooker, between MacDonald and Carton bullied the Nor’Westers in the scrum when the trio weren’t rucking like demons.
“Communication is the key but it all starts in practice,” said MacDonald, 27. “In the scrum we start out really tight and then just coming together with intent to push them off the ball. Whether (the scrum ball is) ours or theirs we’re going out there to push them back and not take any ground.”
Robinson opened the scoring in the 11th minute after a punishing run by eight-man Graham Noren to within spitting distance of the try line.
Five minutes later the Nor’Westers booted a long penalty kick. The firsts replied with Adam Gowing’s successful penalty from the 40-metre line in the 26th minute.
Fierce rucking in scoring territory resulted in Robinson’s second try in the 31st minute. Flynn was stopped a foot short of the try line at the end of a lengthy sequence of pick-and-go plays by the firsts before Robinson scooped up the ball to complete the drive. Gowing’s conversion made it 15-3.
With the Nor’Westers reeling the forwards ratcheted up the intensity, pounding the ball during an impressive show of strength inside the 22-metre line. MacDonald was gang tackled twice in a three-minute span in front of the try line during the time consuming attack. Robinson eventually found a clear path into the try area and Gowing’s conversion ended the first half.
Robinson was subbed off after his fourth try, one of several second-half personnel switches by the firsts.
The Nor’Westers made the score look somewhat respectable with two converted tries 15 minutes apart and the firsts closed it out with a try choreographed by second-half sub Aaron Wicker and junior standoff Chad Monai-Brophy.
“It was a tough game all around,” Carton said. “I’m pretty proud of the boys today. We had some new boys come in and some boys also played two games today (earlier in the afternoon the seconds lost 30-14 to the Clan).”
Carton, 27, was averaging almost a try per match before he was shut out by the Nor’Westers. This is Carton's first year playing rugby in Canada and the rough and tumble forward has quickly established himself as a crowd favourite with the SARFC fans.
“I’m just in the door but I feel like I’ve been here a couple of years. It’s such a family orientated club. Everyone is proud here and the club I play for back home is the same as this club. It’s just so nice. All the old boys in the club are supporters and hopefully we can go all the way this year for them,” said Carton, a noted centre back when he was younger and lighter while ripping it up at the Highfield Rugby Football Club in Cork City. “In training the last couple of weeks we’ve ramped up the tempo. We know what we want to do and everyone is buying into it. I see how ambitious the boys are, especially (captain) Brett Kelly. He is out now for the season (with a knee injury). He wears his heart on his sleeve week in and week out and I just want to be a part of that.”