Firsts limp into playoffs

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Four losses in a row and seven in 12 matches for St. Albert's first 15 after four straight trips to provincials

Airways Park – The Drive for Five by St. Albert’s perennial provincial contenders is stuck in neutral after spinning their tires in four straight losses in premier men’s rugby.

The first 15 finished the Alberta Cup fixtures with seven losses in 12 matches after Saturday’s disappointing 40-6 decision at the home of the rival Clansmen.

St. Albert captain Brett Kelly shrugged his shoulders and shook his head in disbelief when asked what happened against the Clan.

“It was horrendous,” Kelly said. “Stuff wasn’t working. I don’t know why. There was no flow today. There was no flow on Thursday [at training]either.”

The fourth loss in a row marked the longest losing streak for the firsts since 2006. They lost only 10 in 61 matches during their unprecedented run of four consecutive trips to the provincial final, highlighted by the first premier championship in St. Albert Rugby Football Club history in 2010.

The firsts desperately needed a win for a shot at a berth in the Sept. 22 north final, but the third loss in four matches against the Clan this year sealed their playoff fate.

The firsts will now regroup for the Sept. 8 semifinal against the Strathcona Druids. The season series is split at two wins apiece.

The Clan (7-4) and Druids (5-6) close out the fixtures in a meaningless affair Thursday after the Saturday’s contest determine the playoff rankings for the north teams in the premier table.

“We considered it our first playoff game. The team came out hard wanting to win and that’s what determined the victory for us,” said Clan captain Kerry McElhanney. “If we won it we were in the finals so it was a big game, just like a playoff game.”

The firsts were unable to dress a strong line-up against one of the best Clan sides in years because of injuries and player commitments in the Canadian Rugby Championship (CAC) circuit.

“We’ve been struggling this week with injuries. This late in the season we’re beat up,” Kelly said. “Two weeks off is going to help. It will be nice to get all the Wolf Pack guys [in the CAC]back too. It’s definitely big losses with those guys not here.”

In the first half the Clan exploited holes in St. Albert’s defensive line for two converted tries in the opening 20 minutes.

Andrew Marsden was successful kicking a penalty from inside the 40-metre line despite tricky wind conditions in the 23rd minute.

The firsts would later butcher two glorious opportunities for points inside the 22-metre line.

Marsden also missed a penalty attempt from outside the 22, but at the end of the half the import standoff split the uprights from inside the 22.

In the second half the Clan lit up the sluggish firsts with four tries and three conversions. A converted try in the eighth minute after the break signaled the beginning of the end.

“We came here to play some good rugby and that’s what we did today,” said McElhanney, a try scorer in the first half. “It all starts for us on defence with our blue wall causing turnovers, which leads to getting it out wide and getting our backs a chance to score some points.”

A weak outside defence allowed the Clan to make inroads into the try area. They also dominated ball possession and their kicker made some difficult conversions.

The firsts lacked an explosive game breaker to generate points. Their six points matched the team’s lowest scoring total of the season in the 9-6 loss to the Druids in the league opener.

“It was just simple mistakes,” Kelly said of the team’s performance.

Tame affair

Both teams were also under the gun to toe the line after the controversial July 5 slugfest at the Leading Edge Fields. The Clan were issued three red cards in the 18-16 win, which was decided by a penalty kick on the last play. The firsts were carded twice.

“There is always a big rivalry between St. Albert and Clansmen and it just came out in that game. It was just one out of our three or four games this year that became a rough one but that’s the way rugby works,” said McElhanney, a 19-year-old flanker.

Any red cards in the grudge match would have carried over into the playoffs.

“It’s always in your mind. You’ve just got to be as disciplined as you can,” said Kelly, 23, the 2011 Edmonton Rugby Union senior men’s MVP who lined up at flanker in Saturday’s loss.

A long pre-game chat involving the two captains resulted in both getting red carded in the brawl-filled affair. The referee and touch judges cleared the air over how tight the match would be officiated. No nonsense would be tolerated. There were also league observers in attendance and the match was videotaped from the Clan’s clubhouse balcony.

“The ref said we’ve got six eyes on you,” McElhanney said. “There were designated linesmen and they all had their mikes on so with six eyes they will see everything on the field pretty much.”

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Jeff Hansen

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