Ellerslie Rugby Park – The fantastic firsts remain undefeated with a bull’s-eye on their backs in premier men’s rugby.
Teams are targeting the St. Albert Rugby Football Club’s first 15, winners of five in a row, after crushing the Calgary Canucks 43-5 in the Alberta Cup fixtures Saturday.
“Every team wants to go out and beat us now and that means every game we have to raise our standards that little bit more. If we don’t raise it we get beaten. It’s that simple,” stressed Irishman Johnny Moloney, the glue that bonds the forwards together on the Labatt’s Cup contenders.
Seven matches still have to be played, including the Aug. 28 dust-up with the despised Clansmen, before the Ken Ann Cup playoffs start to determine the north rep at the Oct. 4 provincial final in Calgary.
“We look at it like we haven’t won anything yet. It’s been a long time since we’ve won a final,” Moloney said of the 2010 Labatt’s Cup, the first premier championship in SARFC history.
Last year marked the fifth time in six years the firsts challenged the Calgary Rugby Union’s top team for provincial honours and this year’s edition has the potential to be the best of the bunch.
“I wouldn’t say it’s the best team since I’ve been here, it’s the best squad. We’ve always had a good team the last couple of years but we’ve never had the squad and now we have a squad,” said Moloney, 33, who was raised in Poulmucka, Co. Tipperary and arrived four years ago from the Highfield Rugby Football Club in Cork City to work as an electrician while rucking and mauling for SARFC. “As you can see from our seconds (3-1-1) they’re going really well and they’re really young. We never had that squad to compete and those younger guys are really putting pressure on the older guys now. There are some nice players coming through for us.
“For the team and the club the morale is very high. Everyone is buzzing.”
With only two sides to fill with players the willingness to compete is at an all-time high in training.
“It’s all about strength in depth for us,” said Moloney, the last year’s MVP on the firsts. “The competition for the first time since I’ve come here is incredible. Nobody is safe, not even the captain is safe anymore. With Gilly (national 15 prospect Kyle Gilmour) coming back and Adam Bontus on his way back (from the injury list) it puts serious pressure on everyone.
“If you have a bad game you will be benching for a couple of weeks and no one wants to bench, especially when you’re winning. Nobody wants to bench for St. Albert.”
The firsts emptied the bench against the Canucks (2-3) after turning a 12-0 lead at the break into a second-half rout.
“It was a hard fought win. We never let up on the gas. We worked from the minute the whistle blew until the minute of the last whistle,” Moloney said.
The teams traded missed penalty kicks in the opening 20 minutes with the firsts having the edge in play.
After repelling a deep push by the Canucks the firsts counterattacked as Adam Gowing slipped Duncan Maguire a breakaway ball and the rising star on the Team Canada sevens flew down the wing into the try area in the 28th minute.
Eight minutes later eight-man Byron Elliott was sentenced to the sin-bin for breaking one of the very few laws in the sport. With the firsts short a player Maguire almost pulled off a highlight-reel kick and chase on the wing, but the ball rolled into touch in front of the five-metre line. The firsts would eventually score as the acrobatic Maguire fed Anthony Fitch a gift ball to finish off in the try area to end the first half. Gowing’s difficult conversion attempt was good.
Three minutes into the second half, and Elliott back flexing his muscles on the pitch, the firsts combined for a textbook team try as Moloney, an intimidating six-foot-five and 240-pound forward who lined up at second row, bullied his way over the try line after a deep lineout ball.
Scrum-half Jake Robinson caught the Canucks napping with a quick penalty play from in front of the five-metre line to score the team’s fourth try and Gowing’s conversion made it 24-0.
Maguire’s second try was set up by fullback Shea O’Hallahan, a first-year standout from New Zealand who isn’t listed as an import because his mom is a Canadian citizen. Gowing nailed the conversion.
Down by 31 points the Canucks eked out a try but Maguire thwarted the conversion attempt.
Gowing, another newcomer who was pilfered from the Strathcona Druids after a storied tenure with the Sherwood Park-based club, converted his own try and Irish import Conor Power wrapped up the win by weaving his way past several defenders en route to the try area after Brad Angove tracked down a kick and bolted past the halfway line with pace to burn.
“We talked at halftime that we knew we were playing well but we needed to start getting on top now. We knew we didn’t have the wind advantage anymore and it was time to knuckle down and start putting some phases together and getting some scores,” Moloney said. “To get a score straight off the kick off (to start the second half) put us in that mindset that we can win this now.”
The next match is July 3 against the Nor’Westers (0-3) at 7 p.m. at SARFC or the Nor’Westers.
Meanwhile, the Calgary Saints (3-0) successfully appealed their default decision against the firsts. The season-opening May 10 match at Ellerslie was postponed because the Saints couldn’t make the trip so it was rescheduled for June 14 at Alpine field but that didn’t sit well with the Saints. Rugby Alberta ruled the two teams will scrum down Aug. 8. The field location, SARFC or Ellerslie, was not available at press time.
Seconds knot tie
The second 15 (3-1-1) valiantly battled back from a 17-point deficit in the second half to tie the Fort McMurray Knights (3-0-1) at 26 in Saturday’s Edmonton Rugby Union tilt at Ellerslie.
Tries by Neil Coghlan (finisher on the wing on a series of passes across the pitch in tight of the try line with Justin (Bomber) Armitt and U19 junior Chad Monai-Brophy flashing great hands on the play in the 63rd minute), Monai-Brophy (caught a weak kick in front of the posts by the Knights from their try area and dived over the try area as Coghlan kicked the conversion in the 73rd minute) and Matt Jarvis (tremendous romp with wicked moves along the touch line to tie it in the 77th minute but Coghlin’s conversion was unsuccessful).
“Our forward boys really grinded it out. Fort Mac plays a lot of forward game just because they’ve got big guys but our boys really stepped it up,” said Monai-Brophy.
It was 19-9 at halftime as Brophy was 3-for-4 kicking penalties.
The seconds struggled stopping the Knight’s big eight-man with low tackles in the opening 40 minutes as he gobbled up yards with reckless abandon.
“They’re definitely a bigger team but we really took advantage of the penalties they gave away so we were able to get a lot of kicks in and that really helped us,” said Monai-Brophy, 18, who started his first men’s match as the team’s standoff. “I was trying to get the jitters out of me starting at 10 (standoff). You do a lot of kicking and passing duties and I botched a couple of plays but I just tried to settle myself in.”
The 2013 recipient of the prestigious Garth Jones Shield as the U17 player of the year in the ERU also subbed on for the firsts against the Canucks and prior to the weekend had graced the pitch for both the firsts and seconds in a backup role.
“I played U17 last year (with the ERU champions from SARFC) so the pace of the game is a lot faster. Guys are getting quick ball and there is always phase after phase,” said Monai-Brophy, a Team Alberta U18 bronze medallist at last year’s National Championship Festival who will lead the SARFC U19 juniors into battle this summer.
The seconds scrum down July 3 against the Clansmen (1-2) at 7 p.m. at SARFC or Ellerslie.