Firsts fall flat to Druids

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Sherwood Park – The fantastic firsts of St. Albert Rugby Football Club lost their swagger in Saturday’s defensive struggle against the Strathcona Druids in the Alberta Cup fixtures.

After kicking off the premier men’s season with a perfect 7-0 record while averaging a mighty 44.4 points per win and a microscopic 8.2 against, the firsts suffered a humbling 13-8 setback on Druids Day at Lynn Davies Rugby Park.

“The better side won. It wasn’t meant to be for us today,” said a glum-looking Adam Gowing, a former Druid and standoff for the firsts. “I don’t think we had the physicality from the start. We said all week that we wanted to really start with high tempo and a high pace and we got an early score but we kind of sat back after that and we didn’t really keep on attacking. We kind of waited to see what they had and ultimately it cost us.”

“We also kept taking penalty after penalty and we just kept giving them chances.”

The Druids played like a team possessed on defence while eking out enough points to beat last year’s Labatt’s Cup provincial finalists.

“It’s a huge win for us. We’ve been a little down but at home on Druid Day we had to pump it up and we did. We fed off the crowd here today,” said Druids’ prop Peter Houlihan, who had both nostrils packed with gauze to stop the bleeding after the team’s fifth win in eight matches. “We had a tough one last week on the road in Calgary (74-10 loss to the Irish) so this is righting the ship for us. We think we’re one of the top teams in Edmonton and I’m not afraid to say it but we need to have more results like this.”

The Druids rose to the challenge defensively to limit the firsts to a try in the 14th minute and a penalty kick from outside the 22-metre line in the 31st minute as Antony Fitch did all the scoring in his scrumhalf debut.

“Team is the word of the day. It was a 15 man effort and when our subs came in that was huge too,” Houlihan said. “That’s a great team out there and they come really hard at you but we played some great defence today. It was hard yards all day. The tackles were there all day and so was the intensity and physicality. Your boys have some great ball runners so we knew we had to step up and put the shoulders in and it paid off.”

The firsts were no slouches on defence either but offensively they reeked like stale beer. The loss of game-breaker Duncan Maguire, a national sevens’ player and the fastest back on the firsts, to a season-ending broken ankle in the 38-12 victory over the Nor’Westers (1-6) July 3 slowed down the team’s attack to a crawl.

“I think that time ran out for us,” said Jo Hull, head coach of the firsts. “We came out pretty good but once we got our first try early on we just took the foot off the gas a little bit. We also didn’t take our opportunities when we could’ve with a couple of lineout options (in scoring range in the second half). We just forced it.”

Hull’s post-match analysis of the loss covered a lot of ground on what went wrong by the firsts and what the Druids did right.

“Their tempo was better than us and they were a lot more clinical than we were,” Hull said. “They capitalized on a lot more than we did. They were able to execute at the breakdown and we struggled with that today.

“And our discipline, in terms of attacking, we were just panicking.”

The firsts opened the scoring after the Druids missed a long penalty kick as captain Brett Kelly rumbled his way down field past the 22 before passing the ball off for Fitch to sprint untouched into the far side of the try area. Fitch’s conversion attempt was unsuccessful.

The Druids answered with a converted try in the 24th minute and five minutes later made it 10-5 on a penalty kick from a short distance following a brief skirmish.

Fitch closed out the first half by going 1-for-2 kicking penalties from outside the 22, with the second attempt a low, short boot in the 34th minute.

The firsts pressured the Druids in the opening minutes of the second half but despite deep penetration couldn’t crack the try line. After surviving the push for the points the Druids improved their field position and hung tough with the firsts and in the 67th minute padded their lead with a penalty kick.

As time ticked down the firsts threatened offensively but a combination of penalties, poor decisions with the ball and a stout Druids’ defence kept the 13-8 score intact.

“At the start of the second half your boys gave us a scare but once again I can’t say that team word enough. We rallied and every man was putting in those hits around the goal line and we just kept it going and going and we managed to shut the door,” Houlihan said. “I’m just so proud of our boys.”

Saturday’s subplot featured the return of Gowing to his former club. The Irish rugby product was a Druids’ standout for four seasons before switching teams.

“I was more nervous about letting down the St. Albert boys than the actual game. We’re a close bunch of guys,” said the Irish product of the City of Armagh Rugby Football Club. “I did feel pretty comfortable on the ball though.”

Performing for a premier side that’s competed in five of the last six provincial finals, highlighted by their 2010 championship victory, appealed to Gowing.

“For myself it was just to try and kind of challenge myself a little bit more. The Druids are a good club but they haven’t been in a final, even a city final, for five, six, seven years and I wanted to push myself a little bit more. I wanted to be part of a team that wants to achieve and not that the Druids don’t but it’s a different mentality at St. Albert. It’s definitely a professional mentality and I wanted to be a part of that,” Gowing said. “I know Jo quite well and she was coaching here and I talked to her so my decision was easy to make and despite the loss I’m happy I did. I still think we’ll go on to win the league.”

Houlihan downplayed the revenge factor against his former teammate.

“To be honest you play rugby against 15 guys. We’ve played with Adam, he was a great player for us and we were sad to see him go, but at the end of the day this is the top team in the league and we play against the team, we don’t against individuals,” Houlihan said. “I’m sure some of the guys were saying we want to win so we can beat him but at the end of the day we wanted to beat St. Albert, that was our goal and we came in and did it.”

The firsts have four matches remaining before the Ken Ann Cup north playoffs kick off to determine the Edmonton Rugby Union rep at the Oct. 4 provincials in Calgary.

After drowning their sorrows the firsts will regroup for the Calgary Saints (5-2) on Aug. 9 at 4 p.m. on the new and improved SARFC fields.

“It’s definitely a disappointing loss because we’re at the top of the table for a reason. We wanted to maintain that and go unbeaten this year,” Gowing said. “It’s especially bitterly disappointing because that’s the first loss to an Edmonton team (this year). We’ve just got to brush it off and move on.”

The loss also proved the firsts may be good but they’re still not great enough to be the team to fear in the playoffs.

“This loss is not necessarily a wake up call although it’s something to give us an opportunity to regroup and refocus. I don’t think it was anything that we’ve been lacking in our area, they were just better than us today,” said Hull, who is 15-7 during her two-year tenure with the firsts. “We’ll learn from it and we’ll come back. It doesn’t change anything we’re doing in terms of our focus and what we want to do this season. If anything it’s going to teach us a few things so that we’ll be ready to play them again (Aug. 19 at 4 p.m. at St. Albert).”

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Jeff Hansen

Jeff Hansen joined the St. Albert Gazette in 1991. He writes about sports, athletes and teams from St. Albert and area.