Firsts lucky to win

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Calgary Hornets blow game-winning kick on the last play in Saturday's premier men's match at St. Albert Rugby Football Club

Lady Luck smiled on the fantastic firsts in a match they should’ve lost but didn’t.

The personification of fortunate was Saturday’s 28-27 great escape at the St. Albert Rugby Football Club, when the Calgary Hornets missed a conversion from spitting distance in front of the posts for the winning points on the last play in the showdown for first place in the Alberta Cup premier men’s table.

It looked like a done deal after Matt Sanderson snatched a lame duck pass around the Calgary 40 metre-line and galloped untouched into the try area and the conversion by Luke (Aussie) Richardson made it 28-15 with 13 minutes remaining.

But the resilient Hornets roared back with two thunderous tries in the last three minutes and the second was under the posts off a long run through open space to set-up the game-ending kick but Dustin McPherson failed to split the up-rights.

“There was quite bit of luck involved today on that last play,” said Sanderson with a sigh of relief.

McPherson’s try and drop-goal conversion with time running out pulled the Hornets to within one converted score from snatching victory from the jaws of defeat but with the game on the line and the ball teed up at close range his kick was no good.

“As a kid you always wish for those moments, a kick to win the game, but unfortunately it didn’t work out for me,” said the Hornets’ classy inside-centre.

“I’m not traditionally the kicker. I’ve never practiced it. The first one, after I scored it, straight away I kicked a drop goal and that was more instinct because I knew there was about three or four minutes left, or maybe even less. (The last one) I was trying to pawn it off to the original kicker (Cole Jack), who cut his head probably worth about six to eight stitches. He wasn’t in any condition to do it so I took it,” McPherson added. “I take full responsibility. My chest wasn’t over the ball, I went far too back and I fanned it to the right.”

The beaten-looking firsts watched in disbelief as the kick unfolded.

“I thought that was it. Our heads were down. I was just getting ready to walk off and then I saw him miss with a smile on his face. We were lucky to get away with that one,” said scrumhalf Lino Filisione. “We made it hard on ourselves but at the end of the day a win is a win. We’ll take that.”

The SARFC coaches were blunt in their assent of the team’s performance in the post-game huddle.

“In theory they should’ve won that game. We let that go,” said player/head coach Clay Panga, a former Hornets’ captain.

“We had some glaring, glaring errors, some glaring weaknesses,” chimed in coach Simon Hill. “There are some fundamental issues.”

The firsts were a step ahead of the Hornets – 8-0 at the 10 minute mark (Adam Bontus was the finisher on a team-driven try in the sixth minute and Richardson kicked a penalty from outside the 22), 16-5 at halftime (points in the last 11 minutes before the break on Robert Blunden’s try and Richardson’s penalty kick from outside the 22) and 21-5 in the 49th minute (on a try by the elusive Filisione) – until the very end when they almost gassed it.

“They caught us short on numbers. They have a few speedsters where they exploit our short numbers on the side and they took every opportunity they could,” Filisione said of the Hornets’ last two tries. “We knew these guys were going to be physical today and they weren’t going to give it to us easy. We just managed to pull through and got the result we wanted but we have a lot to improve on.”

The firsts (10-2-1, 11 bonus points) have one more match to nail down their second consecutive Alberta Cup pennant after their sixth straight win and the fourth in a row over the Hornets (9-4, 13 BP), the top south side in the table.

The teams have combined to win the last six Labatt’s Cup – the firsts clobbered the Hornets 39-5 last year in Calgary for their first provincial championship since 2010 – as they zero in on the Oct. 3 final at Ellerslie Rugby Park.

“We expect to see them in the final, that’s for sure,” McPherson said. “It’s always been a good battle between us and St. Albert. It’s always a good, clean, physical match. We always respect each other in those terms. We leave it on the field and we can always have beers afterwards, that’s what we love about the game.”

An enthusiastic capacity crowd got their monies worth as the premier powerhouses slugged it out inch by inch.

“It was pretty damn tough. We played a pretty tough game against the Clan last week (37-5 win at Airway Park) and this was just as physical. The Hornets are a big side,” said Sanderson, a high-octane outside-centre.

The provincial preview was even better than the May 30 tilt in Calgary, when the firsts racked up 24 unanswered points in the first half and then hung on for the 24-19 victory.

“It’s always been a forwards battle and I think this time we actually had them a little bit in the forwards. We matched them in the scrums and in the lineouts but the game in Calgary in the start of the season they obviously clearly dominated us in the front row in the forwards,” McPherson said. “In terms of this game, coming home strong is just our flair. We like to finish strong. I wouldn’t say it’s fitness but I think it just takes us too long to get that quick one, to start playing rugby.”

In the rematch, the firsts left points on the field despite controlling the flow of play while the Hornets were happy to be down by only 11.

“We were basically just fighting against them all day trying to catch up and unfortunately it didn’t swing our way,” said McPherson, 32. “We made a lot of mistakes today and that led to tries. If you have a look at all of their tries, there was about three mistakes on our behalf and each one led to tries so if we can cut down on those errors and then we start stringing phases together we’ll do really, really good as we get to the business end of the season.”

Trailing by 16 after Filisione’s try, the Hornets strung together a penalty kick and converted try in a span of six minutes to close the gap.

“They’ve got key players in all areas of the field and they used their experience in the second half,” Filisione said. “They’ve got more structure than the last team we played down in Calgary.

Filisione’s try off a feed from Sanderson was wicked. He slipped out of several tackles and at one point was actually running backwards before spinning around to slam-dunk the ball over the try line.

“I don’t actually know what happened, but all the boys said it was good that I stayed strong on my feet,” said the impressive New Zealand import.

Filisione, 25, has embraced the Alberta brand of rugby in his first SARFC season.

“It’s good to come to a really good club. It’s different from home but I love the rugby here. There is a lot of support and the community is really good and kind,” said Filisione, who followed his buddy, Panga, to the club and a half.

Sanderson, an Irish import, had the joint jumping with his electrifying interception as the Hornets nonchalantly tossed the ball around in the backs.

“I knew it was possible. It was pretty loopy and slow so I just tried to read it the best I could,” said Sanderson, 22. “I got lucky but once I got it I knew I was going to make it (into the try area).”

The firsts will now prepare to host the lowly Strathcona Druids (1-11-1, seven BP) Sept. 12 in the last match before the playoffs and the Sept. 19 north semifinals. Kickoff times are 4 p.m.

Panga stressed the firsts must perform at a higher level than what they showed against the Hornets.

“I don’t know about you guys but the feeling on the team this week wasn’t good. I want to bring us back to ground zero here. Remember, whatever you do during the week it’s about the team leading into Saturday. Everything we do there is a purpose so let’s build for the Druids,” said the accomplished eight-man.

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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.