St. Albert’s premier men’s rugby team is not rushing to push the panic button despite an alarming start to the season.
“I’m not worried and I don’t think the boys are either,” said an upbeat Duncan Maguire after Saturday’s 27-14 loss to the Calgary Hornets at the St. Albert Rugby Football Club. “We’ve lost our first three games but we know we can play better. We’re only going to get stronger.”
Every team but two makes the Alberta Cup quarter-finals.
“You can’t base our season on the first three games. Obviously no one likes losing but it’s not disheartening. We’re improving each game,” said Maguire, a notoriously quick fullback. “We came out with more intensity this time compared to our last two games, which is what we wanted to do.”
The first 15 showed flashes of greatness that made them a team to fear the last three years (39-6-1 record, two pennants, three trips to the finals and 2010 provincial title) but it wasn’t enough to win their home opener in front of a raucous overflow crowd of St. Albert supporters.
“Definitely it’s the best game of the three so far, which is good, but there are still a few things we really need to work on that will make us stronger as the season goes on,” Maguire said. “We did really good on defence coming up to the line a lot better compared to the last two games, so we’re petty happy with that.”
The firsts have now lost three in a row to the Hornets, dating back to the 2009 provincial final.
“St. Albert was the provincial champion last year so it’s a huge important victory for us,” said Dustin MacPherson, inside-centre for the 3-0 Hornets. “It sets a new benchmark for us.”
It’s also a major accomplishment when the visiting team is victorious in St. Albert.
“A lot of teams look at St. Albert and say this is what we want to be like,” MacPherson said. “We like coming here. It’s obviously a long drive for us, but St. Albert looks after us. They always put on a good show.”
The Hornets struck quickly for 10 points on two tries in the opening 19 minutes after Ashley Hanson was wide on an early penalty from outside the 22-metre line kicking against the wind. The first try in the 12th minute was off a deep lineout and the second was a long chase after a rolling ball towards the try area.
The firsts charged back to cut the deficit to three points on Jake Robinson’s try and Hanson’s conversion in the 26th minute. Key plays by eight-man Brett Kelly and scrum-half Quinn Brophy put the ball in scoring range, but an injury timeout stopped the drive with the Hornets’ standoff sprawled motionless in front of the posts. When play resumed, a few passes after a scrum sprung Robinson through the posts.
“They scored an early try but we didn’t let that affect us. We bounced right back,” Maguire said.
The Hornets ramped up the pressure and after several minutes in St. Albert’s end they cracked the try line with a robust run through tackles. The conversion restored their 10-point advantage.
The first half ended with Maguire’s second try of the season. The electrifying give-and-go passing sequence between Maguire and Justin (Bomber) Armitt in Calgary territory was St. Albert’s play of the game.
“We came back to the other side of the field with the ball and the other team wasn’t expecting it. Ashley made a good heads up play on that. It was then just Bomber and I. I popped it to Bomber and thankfully he was there. He held on to it, looked for the offload and I just happened to be there and saw open field,” Maguire said.
Hanson’s conversion left the firsts down by three after 40 minutes.
“The momentum was in our favour, I found in the first half, we just made some stupid mistakes and turnovers and they capitalized,” Maguire said.
A quick start in the second half by the firsts failed to generate points despite excellent field position. The Hornets eventually scored tries seven minutes apart with frantic runs down the touchline.
“Early in the second half we were starting to make a lot of breaks and a lot of offloads and that shifted our momentum and we were able to get those tries,” MacPherson said. “We ran your forwards around a far bit today. We threw it out wide as best as we could and just gave good forward ball and set up a good platform to get momentum and rack up the scores.”
Maguire, 21, noted the Hornets had the upper hand in two main areas.
“Their offloads is what killed us. They scored about two tries just from offloads,” said the co-coach of the St. Albert Skyhawks’ rugby team. “They were quick off the ball off rucks too.”
The last 22 minutes were scoreless even with the Hornets short a player in the sin bin for about 15 minutes.
It was testy at times, especially towards the end of the match. Assistant coach Gerbil Kiernan, a late second half sub at prop, was involved in few shoving incidents against players younger than him. Adam Bontus and a Hornet were also sent to the sin bin to cool off after a heated exchange.
By far the most dominating St. Albert player was Kelly. The team captain buried several Hornets into the pitch with devastating hits. He also had a number of run-ins with his number-eight counterpart on the Hornets.
“They meet us up front. They are a real physical team,” said MacPherson, who shifted to standoff when the Hornets’ starter was injured in the first half. “It’s always a good, tough battle with these guys.”
MacPherson, 27, said both teams are in the same boat even though they have different records.
“St. Albert is missing a lot of key players, some of the forwards and I think some backs as well,” said the rugby product of Australia. “We’re still missing one or two boys up front but we’ve brought up some young kids. Sprinkle that with a couple of overseas players and hopefully it makes a good recipe for a good team.”
Last year MacPherson and several Hornets missed the last game before the playoffs, 26-10 over the firsts in Red Deer with first place on the line, and the 25-15 semifinal loss against the Calgary Canucks because of commitments with the Calgary-based Prairie Wolf Pack.
Obviously we have a bitter taste in our mouth with the Canucks beating us when three or four of our starters were away in Newfoundland [for the Canadian Rugby Championship], said MacPherson, who played a major role in the Hornets knocking off the undefeated St. Albert squad 24-22 for the 2009 provincial crown.
The next contest for the firsts is Saturday in Red Deer against the winless Titans at 3:30 p.m.