Calgary Rugby Park – A goal-line stand of epic proportions cemented the legacy of the fantastic firsts in Alberta premier men’s rugby.
On the back foot for several agonizing minutes and the Calgary Hornets buzzing within spitting distance of the try area, the St. Albert Rugby Football Club sealed the provincial three-peat with an unbreakable defensive bond in Saturday’s 25-20 championship conquest.
“We were not to be denied,” declared an elated Duncan Maguire of SARFC’s unwavering will to win with the proverbial backs against the wall mentality in the late stages of the fierce Labatt’s Cup showdown with the undefeated Hornets.
When the final whistle blew 2:26 minutes into injury time, the firsts exploded with an emotional roar that shook the pitch as SARFC supporters poured out of the stands to embrace their exhausted heroes.
“It was a case of whoever blinked first. It was a complete standoff, a battle of wills,” chimed in a spent-looking Johnny Moloney with satisfaction etched across his mug.
The Hornets looked on in bewilderment in the shadows of the SARFC goal posts as the firsts savoured the sweet taste of success.
“St. Albert had great defence. Hats off to them. They defended their goal line really, really well,” said Dustin McPherson, a crafty standoff for the Hornets, following the team’s first loss after 13 wins this year.
A converted try by the Hornets would have ended the suspense.
“Unfortunately things didn’t swing our way,” McPherson said. “We had an opportunity late in the second half and it sort of summed our year all year; really, really close but not quite over the line.”
The Hornets exploded out of the gates with tries 14 minutes apart to lead 12-0 by the 24th minute.
“We started off really, really fast. That’s the first time we’ve done that all year,” McPherson said. “Unfortunately, rugby is game of two halfs.”
Six minutes after the Hornets opened the scoring with an unconverted try off a lineout play, Antony Fitch’s penalty kick from just inside the 40-metre line was wide of the mark.
Penalties through the first half allowed the Hornets to dominate ball possession and field advantage before SARFC was awarded a penalty try in the 35th minute and Fitch converted the score.
It was the break the firsts desperately needed.
“We were kind of pinned in our end and we just really couldn’t relieve the pressure until the breakaway try that was eventually awarded a penalty try,” said scrumhalf Jake Robinson of the high tackle by the Hornets on the Fitch/A.J. King breakthrough that was faster than a blink of the eye. “That was when we really knew we’re better than how we’re playing. We just needed ball in hand and get it out wide where we had space on them. We just stuck with that after and it paid off.”
The firsts fed off the try to even the count at 12 in the 39th and last minute of the half, as Angus (Gus) MacDonald vaulted over Byron Elliott after the team’s captain for the final advanced the ball in tight of the try line following a Fitch run for the lads to work the ball in deep.
The firsts picked up the pace in the second half, despite the Hornets regaining the lead at 17-12 with a try in the corner six minutes after the break.
“When we scored those two tries late that helped a lot. The momentum going into the second half was in our favour and we just started using the ball more,” Maguire said.
A series of penalties to both sides eventually resulted in a near try by Moloney, one of several second half subs that showcased the team’s deep bench strength.
In the 59th minute, Fitch slotted a penalty from close range to pull within two of the Hornets and the firsts slow gaining the upper hand.
The back-pedalling Hornets got back on track with a penalty kick from inside the 22-metre line in the 67th minute after some diligent defence by the firsts.
Down by five, the firsts cranked up the pressure with a threatening attack that culminated in a cracker of a try by Maguire off Dan Laventure’s slick offload in the 70th minute and Fitch kicked the go-ahead conversion as the SARFC fans rose in unison to applaud the scoring feat.
“I didn’t really do any of the work. I was just lucky,” said the blushing Maguire, a game breaker on wing with exceptional speed. “It was a bit of a loose play. Dan picked it up, cut back inside, broke through a few tackles and when their fullback came to get him it was a quick offload and I was just metres away (from the try area) and it was a quick put down for the try.”
Buoyed by their first lead of the final, SARFC kept charging forward with authority. The firsts were later rewarded with a penalty in front of the posts for Fitch to split the uprights in the 75th minute and the SARFC cheering section yelling itself hoarse.
With time slowly ticking away, the Hornets sucked it up to push the ball into SARFC territory with the help of a couple of penalties that eventually put them at the five-metre line in the 78th minute.
“We didn’t panic, that was a big thing,” said Moloney, 35. “There’s a lot of bald heads on this team and we knew that we could kill the ball and frustrate them and make them make a mistake so we were happy to defend and keep tackling. They came at us all day and we kept tackling.”
The 15 players that stood shoulder to shoulder on the defensive line pulled off a Herculean effort as the Hornets kept trying to ram the ball down their throats only to run into a brick wall of tacklers as the final entered injury time after the 80-minute mark.
“When they got that close we just had to keep an eye on the clock because we knew we had them. Every time they tried to go through the middle on us that’s where we’re the strongest,” said Moloney, a second-row physical force that stopped the Hornets about an inch away from the try line in the 79th minute with brute strength.
Everybody on the firsts took turns tattooing the SARFC logo on the Hornets as they tried in vain to break through the tighter-than-a-drum firsts with several stabs from the five-metre line.
“It was just hard, hard defence. We worked on our close game all week (at training), just getting low and chopping at the knees, putting your body down and it came in handy,” said Maguire, who drew raves from teammates for sticking a Hornet with gusto in the last few seconds of the titanic tussle.
“I wouldn’t say we panicked,” said McPherson of the Hornets’ unsuccessful bid to overtake the stubborn firsts. “At the end of the day it came down to execution to get over the white line.”
The frantic finish symbolized the thrill of victory and agony of defeat between the perennial premier powerhouses, winners of the last eight provincial titles.
The 12th victory in 14 matches for the firsts also completed the third Labatt’s Cup in a row, equalling the 2011-13 run by the Hornets, and the fourth in six years.
It was also the fifth final between the clubs, with the Hornets winning 24-22 in 2009, 31-13 in 2011 and 47-10 in 2013 at Ellerslie Rugby Park before the firsts prevailed 39-5 in 2014 in Calgary.
“It’s always been a two-horse race been us and St. Albert. We’ve set the bar for Alberta rugby,” McPherson said. “We always expect it to be a hard game when we play these guys.”
Maguire, 27, agreed. “The Hornets are always such a good team. You’ve got to give them credit. They had us running around the park all day. Their No. 10 (McPherson) played outstanding. They didn’t make it easy for us that’s for sure.”
Ironically, the firsts were undefeated in 2009 when the Hornets knocked them off in the final but this time the tables were turned.
“The chips fell our way then and what happened this year the chips fell their way,” said McPherson, 32. “But I sure feel 45 right now after this game.”
Saturday’s thriller was the eighth final in nine years for SARFC in the premier ranks after winning the 2007 Lor-Ann Cup second division provincial championship.
“It says a lot about the core group of guys staying with it. We’ve had three different coaches (Jo Hull in 2014, player/coach Clay Panga in 2015 and Si Culley this year) over the last three years and they all bring something different to the table but the core group of guys are just super coachable and the three coaches we’ve had know our strengths and they built a game plan around us that benefits us in the playoffs,” said Robinson, 27. “No one has an attitude and they want to win and they know the best way to win is to buy in to the coach’s game plan so we have that winning mentality and winning attitude and we keep building off that.
“Hopefully a large group of these guys stick around and keep building on what we’ve started at the club.”