Fantastic firsts conquer Saints

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St. Albert stuns provincial champions with second-half comeback

Calgary Rugby Park — St. Albert’s stunning victory against the holy men of rugby left no doubt who the best team in Alberta is.

Trailing by nine at halftime, the first division men pounded the Calgary Saints for 32 straight points in Saturday’s 35-12 showdown against the reigning provincial champions.

“We just kept running it down their throats and they couldn’t handle it after a while,” scrum-half Jake Robinson told the Gazette prior to boarding a boisterous team bus for the trip back home.

The rematch of the 2008 premier final was the latest in a long line of historic triumphs by St. Albert’s first 15 since 2007, when they celebrated a second division provincial title while going 18-1 overall. Last year they captured the Alberta Cup pennant en route to challenging the Saints for playoff honours.

“This is simply massive,” said fly-half David Owen. “We targeted this team and this particular game as well. They’re defending Alberta champions. They dominated the Alberta league for the last couple of decades and we wanted to prove we’re the best team in Alberta now and we had to beat them to do that.”

The third time was the charm for St. Albert. In last year’s memorable return to the first division ranks, St. Albert battled the Saints to a wild 25-all draw on the Saints’ home turf and in the final lost 24-10 in Calgary.

“It’s a huge confidence booster for our team,” Robinson said. “This is the only team we hadn’t beat so far in the premier league and it feels good to put quite a tally on them.”

Nasty affair

The Saints were leery of St. Albert after last year’s physical tilts.

“We knew it was going to be a tough game. We had to just muscle up,” said John Runchel, the Saints captain. “All credit to St. Albert; they were willing to take us on.”

A rash of blood subs kept the trainers busy. Captain Graham Noren and eight-man Byron Elliott both shook off injuries to stay in the match. Owen played in pain after hurting his right shoulder in a violent, multi-player collision in the 39th minute.

The Saints were forced to empty their bench as the injuries mounted. In the second half they lost a player on a late hit by fullback Adam Bontus near the touchline in St. Albert territory.

After the final whistle the Saints limped off the pitch looking very much like a defeated squad.

“It was a good, tough, physical game. It was impressive. That’s what we wanted to play and St. Albert did that quite well,” said Runchel, a burly prop. “Unfortunately we did get a few injuries and it cost us in the end.”

Both teams were undefeated in three games leading up to the most anticipated match of the season.

“They come down here with a plan and they pulled it off. They’ve got a lot of skill, a lot of talent and a lot of young guys. They’re going to be a good team,” said Runchel, 28, “They’re definitely playing their own style and that’s good, hard rugby.”

Penalty problems

In the first half a tentative St. Albert side almost gave the game away with some uncharacteristic mistakes and a shocking number of penalties.

“We looked really nervous, a little bit overwhelmed, to be honest,” said Owen, who kicked two penalties and converted two tries. “In the second half the boys settled down, cut out the penalties and the tide totally changed. We were winning the penalties and every challenge and breakdown. The boys showed tremendous character.”

The Saints scored their points on well-struck penalties as their kicker went 4-for-5 in the first half to lead 12-3. It was 6-0 Saints when Owen put St. Albert on the board with a straight kick from inside the 22-metre line in the 33rd minute. A few minutes before he missed a penalty on an angle from inside the 22.

“In the first half we weren’t composed at all. We were pretty frantic out there trying to get points up quick and we weren’t really sticking to the game plan. Our rucks were pretty sloppy too,” Robinson said. “In the second half we settled down. We realized we could beat these guys because we were out-playing them. We were just giving up stupid penalties, which they got all their points from.”

Two minutes into the second half Owen’s penalty kick from deep outside the 22 cued the comeback. As St. Albert ramped up the pressure, a promising scoring play involving a series of passes and runs into contact by Bontus, Matt Herod and Edwin Shimming ended with a penalty at the five-metre line.

With 25 minutes remaining and St. Albert down by six, Herod had a try under the posts called back after the touch judge ruled the newcomer from Ontario had stepped out of bounds.

St. Albert bolted into the lead with 17 minutes to go on a short diving try by English import Karim Lynch. Leading up to the score a couple of Owen kicks on Calgary penalties pushed St. Albert down field. Wicked support by basically the entire team kept the drive going.

“It was definitely our heart. We were so determined to win that game,” said Robinson, 20, who spent the past two seasons honing his skills at the Cowichan Rugby Club.

Chip and chase

Two minutes later a brilliant chip and chase by Robinson sealed the deal. “I did a pick and go off the ruck. They were pinching on our forwards so I shot the gap. Their guy came in so I just [kicked]it through and then I got a lucky bounce and caught it behind their fullback. I thought he was going to hit me as soon as I got it but luckily it bounced right over his head and I got in behind him and just run it in for the try,” said the recipient of the 2008 most improved player award at the St. Albert Rugby Football Club.

Owen converted Robinson’s try to make it 18-12.

Elliott would go on score a pair of tries, his first off a lineout ball near the try line and the second was a long breakaway dash from midfield on a pass by Herod to end the game. Elliott, the team’s MVP through the first four games, missed last year’s final with a busted jaw.

Veteran winger Nathan Reis also ran the ball into the try area off an overlap and Owen split the uprights on a difficult convert.

“‘I’m hot and cold right now with my kicking. There’s a bit more practicing to be done,” said Owen, 28, who expects to miss the next few games with ligament damage in his shoulder.

The 10-point outing by the Welsh Bullet followed a 19-point effort (one try, seven converts) in the 59-0 drubbing of the Red Deer Titans on the road. It marked his first game back with St. Albert after contemplating retirement.

“I missed all the boys, plus I think I still have more to offer here. I also want to win an Alberta championship,” said Owen, who ranks arguably among the top five players in the St. Albert club’s storied history.

Team to beat

Barring a total collapse St. Albert should finish at the top of the standings again for home field advantage in the quarter-final and semifinal rounds. The final is Sept. 12 at Ellerslie Rugby Park. Last year the firsts went 11-2-1 in league play and in the playoffs beat the Calgary Irish by 18 points and the Calgary Canucks by six before succumbing to the Saints.

“It’s a more mature team than last year. The guys are a year older, a year bigger and a year stronger. They know what to expect now,” Owen said. “After today’s evidence we probably are a little bit better than last year because the Saints are stronger than they were in the final.”

St. Albert’s next game is this Saturday versus the winless Lep/Tigers. Kickoff is 2 p.m. at Ellerslie.

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About Author

Jeff Hansen

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