Nor’Westers Field – Attacking instead of defending turned a slow start into a powerful performance for the fantastic firsts in premier men’s rugby.
Down but not out trailing 11-0 in the Alberta Cup lid-lifter, the St. Albert Rugby Football Club’s first 15 charged back like raging bulls for a 19-point advantage at halftime during a dominating 50-35 decision against the Nor’Westers on Saturday.
“Once you’re on the front foot, rugby is a lot easier to play,” said Si Culley, the new head coach of the SARFC men’s program. “We were aspiring to create and then things started to come together.”
The second try of the match by captain Byron Elliott at eight-man and Andy (Pinky) Kelleher’s conversion in the 34th minute boosted the firsts on top to stay, leading 19-14.
Two converted tries later on scores by scrumhalf Jake Robinson and winger Duncan Maguire, the half ended with the firsts in control at 33-14.
“We had a lot of organization, just thinking a step ahead of them,” said the flashy Maguire, who waltzed his way into the try area to make it 38-28 with 15 minutes remaining.
“We had them on the back feet all the time. When they were on defence the forwards did a great job at rucking out, getting clear ball and our nine (scrumhalf) and 10 (Kelleher at standoff) combinations were great. We were already set up on the back line and it was just that quick thinking, that step ahead of them that helped us get those overlaps and spin the ball and score some tries.”
Culley summed up the offensive philosophy in three words: tempo, speed and creativity.
“The biggest compliment I can pay you is everyone has bought into it and gone for it and that’s what happens,” the Englishman from Newcastle told the players in the post-game huddle. “How easy would that have been 10 minutes into the game to crumble away, 11-0 down and no possession? We could’ve absolutely folded to pieces but you all trusted each other. The support play was magnificent at times, with three, four blokes hitting the breakdowns and creating quick opportunities. They can’t defend on the back foot for long.
“It’s not a forwards or back thing. Everybody is pitching in and creating opportunities for everybody else.”
The lopsided result was somewhat surprising considering the Nor’Westers are the biggest threat to ending SARFC’s incredible stretch of seven appearances in the premier final in eight years as winners of the Labatt’s Cup provincial championship three times in the last six years, including back-to-back triumphs in 2015 and 2014.
Last year’s 28-19 thriller over the Nor’Westers in the Ken Ann Cup marked the third consecutive north crown and the seventh in eight trips in a row to the premier showdown for a provincial berth.
“The Nor’Westers always have a strong side. I’ve noticed over the past few years they’ve been bringing players up and developing their team so this year they’re going to have another really strong squad,” said Maguire, after the seventh victory without a loss by the firsts against the Nor’Westers since they rejoined the premier ranks in 2014.
“It’s early in the season so they’re still developing as well but once things get going they’re definitely a team to beat so for us to get one win on them is huge, especially at the Nor’Westers club. They’ve got great supporters so we’re pretty happy.
“It’s only going up from here, I hope.”
Culley, 35, also danced a jig after his SARFC coaching debut.
“It’s really exciting. To score 50 points in your first game, that’s great,” said the fifth head coach since SARFC returned to premier after capturing the 2007 provincial second division Lor-Ann Cup.
“That’s a good team we beat. The Nor’Westers are really well coached. They’re organized and they know their thing. They’ve got some really good players out there so to rack up a bonus point win (five points in the Alberta Cup table) as well and play like that, I’m happy.”
The firsts fell behind early after the Nor’Westers scored a try in-between two penalties to lead by 11 before Elliott chugged into the try area from an offload by Orrin Farries in the 21st minute.
Three minutes later, winger Matt Mackenzie chased down a kick by Kelleher, an import from Ireland, and the former Clan player out-hustled a defender for the ball in the try area. Kelleher’s conversion was good.
After another penalty kick by the Nor’Westers, the firsts regained the lead with a determined scoring run by Elliott, head coach of the SARFC division one women’s team in the Edmonton Rugby Union and the 2015 MVP of the terrific thirds, Visser Cup third division winners in the ERU and Digby Dinnie Cup provincial champions for the first time in 18 years.
Kelleher converted the last three tries before the break, including one from Ashley Hanson distance near the touchline after Maguire’s try to end the half.
The Nor’Westers closed the gap to 10 points with a pair of converted tries by the 55th minute.
However, tries by Maguire (set-up by a clear pass from inside-centre Chad Monai-Brophy) and second-half subs’ Matt Jarvis in the backs and prop Nathan Yue (off a Maguire interception outside the 22-metre line) finished off the win.
Kelleher was 5-for-8 on conversions.
The 22-man lineup included a number of players who saw action for the thirds against the Nor’Westers that afternoon before the premier match.
Mackenzie, Kelleher, flanker Matt Harrison, a transplanted Manitoban, and Lawrence Ross, a flanker from the Clan, played their first SARFC matches.
Cam Larson, a lock, and prop Christian Otto are former SARFC players who started for the firsts.
“There were a lot of new caps on the firsts today. That was very exciting to see and encouraging to see a lot of the younger players stepping up. It puts a lot of faith into the club,” said Maguire, 26, a Team Canada player along with Robinson at the 2016 Americas Rugby Championship.
The next match is May 28 against the Hornets at 3:30 p.m. in Calgary.
The thirds suffered a 46-13 loss to the Nor’Westers to kick off their season.
A variety of young and old, experienced and non-experienced players saw the field for the thirds against the bigger and older Nor’Westers. With so many new faces, learning the names of their teammates proved challenging for the thirds.
The Nor’Westers led 10-3 after the first quarter, 17-8 at halftime and 27-13 after three quarters.
Points were scored by Neil Coughlin’s penalty kick in the first quarter, Aaron Weicker’s try in the second quarter and Nathan Naidu’s try in the third quarter.
SARFC also welcomed Fort McMurray players Greg Pelly and Evan Buckley into its fold. Both subbed on for the thirds in the second half.
The ERU is allowing Fort McMurray players to join other clubs until the status of their home club after the fires is determined.
The thirds travel to Lloydminster on May 28 to play the Reapers at 3 p.m.