Firsts flex their muscles

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St. Albert premier men's rugby team gets physical with Nor'Westers

Nor’Westers Fields – When push came to shove for the fantastic firsts, the Nor’Westers landed with a thud in Thursday’s dust-up in premier men’s rugby.

“It was pretty damn physical. They’ve got a quite a big side. They really brought it to us but our guys are just as physical,” said Irish import Matt Sanderson, the finisher on three of the seven tries by the Labatt’s Cup provincial champions in the 43-15 triumph.

The firsts improved to 6-2-1 (seven bonus points) as pennant contenders and the Nor’Westers are 5-4-1 (four BP).

“It was a massive result for us,” Sanderson said. “The Nor’Westers definitely showed up today. Big performance by them.”

The bruising battle between the top two north teams in the premier table was also a preview of the Ken Ann Cup final Sept. 26 for a berth in the provincial final.

“It looks like it’s going to be us and them in the city finals so today was a great performance. It gives us a lot of confidence if we do draw them in the cities,” Sanderson said.

The satisfying showing was also the fifth victory without a loss against the Nor’Westers since they rejoined the premier ranks last year.

“The end result was great. It was good stuff against these guys. They’re a pretty tough team and you guys ran up the score like you wanted to,” head coach Clay Panga told the spent-looking firsts in the post-game huddle. “However, there is also a lot to work on. I think we all know that so let’s keep grinding it out. Our provincial goal is in sight now but we’ve got to put our heads down and work.”

The first of two tries by Orrin Farris, the team captain for the match, kicked off the scoring in the 10th minute. Punishing runs into contact by Brett Kelly and Lucas Albornoz was followed by a brilliant back pass by Paul Flynn to Kelly, who bullied his way past the 22-metre line before the ball was swung to the left for Farris to sprint into the try area.

Anthony Fitch nailed the conversion from a tricky spot near the touchline on the 22.

Five minutes later, the Nor’Westers split the uprights from around the halfway line with an impressive penalty kick.

After a lengthy session of hand-to-hand combat and the ball switching sides several times between the 40-metre lines, Fitch ran wild to track down a kick in the try area and converted his own score in the 30th minute.

The Nor’Westers replied by splitting the defensive line with a galloping try in the 34th minute.

The opening 40-minutes of hard-fought rugby ended with Sanderson’s first try, a long dash into the clear with several Nor’Westers in hot pursuit after a nifty play by Robert Blunden in the team’s half of the field, to make it 19-8.

“It was close in the first half but after that our fitness and our skills definitely took us through the second half for a good win,” Sanderson said.

The second half wasn’t even a minute old when a Nor’Wester suffered an injury and several of his teammates had frank words with Australian import Khaleb Whitehurst, a vocal and physical presence at flanker, who they pointed fingers at as the main culprit.

“They’re getting mad at us because they can’t handle us,” Kelly told the firsts during the injury timeout.

Chippy play escalated after the incident but that didn’t stop the firsts from pressuring the Nor’Westers for points and in the 48th minute a determined run by Mitch Millett set the stage for Fitch to weave his magic and after faking a Nor’Wester out of his cleats the ball was distributed to Farris to salt away.

Fitch suffered a lower-body injury on the scoring play and the splendid standoff required assistance leaving the pitch.

Tempers flared after another Nor’Wester was hurt during some intense action. Whitehurst was yellow carded over the incident and spent the next 14 minutes in the sin-bin, much to his dismay.

“That’s rubbish!” Whitehurst yelled at the referee as he paced back and forth behind the try area while serving his sentence.

With the firsts shorthanded the Nor’Westers found the strength to push the ball over for their second try and the conversion left them trailing by nine.

The firsts, boosted by several second-half substitutions, replied with three converted tries after Whitehurst was released from purgatory. He rattled off a spirited run into scoring territory that ended with Sanderson’s sweet flip pass to Chad Monai-Brophy in front of the posts for a try with 15 minutes to play.

Monai-Brophy, who replaced the injured Fitch at standoff, converted two of last three tries and hit the post on the other attempt.

Five minutes after the try, Monai-Brophy aired the ball out with a hefty boot that bounced around the pitch toward the Nor’Westers’ try line. As the last defender scrambled to gain possession, Justin (Bomber) Armitt swooped in to retrieve the ball and quickly dished it off for Sanderson to touch it down.

Sanderson’s last try, following another injury timeout for the Nor’Westers, was choreographed by Duncan Maguire, who reeled in a pass from Luke (Aussie) Richardson and then spun the ball wide for the lanky centre with blinding green neon cleats to motor into the try zone with a couple of minutes remaining.

“I have to give credit to the winger (Maguire) and the scrumhalf (Richardson) on that one. They put me in the corner (in the try area). I didn’t really have to do much,” said Sanderson, 22.

The County Cork resident and Dunmanway Rugby Club member arrived in St. Albert this summer with only one match under his belt after a torn ACL sidelined him for 18 months.

“I’m feeing really good,” said Sanderson, a quality addition to the firsts. “It’s great here. I like it a lot. It’s a great bunch of guys and a great coach in Clay Panga. He’s new (to the St. Albert Rugby Football Club) this season and I’m enjoying playing under him.”

SCRUM BALLS: St. Albert products Andy Tiedemann (Plymouth Albion), a prop, and flanker Kyle Gilmour (Rotherham Titans) are showcasing their skills with Team Canada at the Pacific Nations Cup.

Canada’s last match is Monday versus the USA Eagles at Swangard Stadium in Burnaby, B.C. It’s the final audition before Canada’s roster is finalized for the 2015 World Cup in England.

Canada is winless and the Eagles have one win in the tournament hosted by Rugby Canada.

Canada is 38-13-1 against their rivals south of the border.

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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.