Gritty win by gallant firsts

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Second-half rally pushes St. Albert past the Clan in premier men's rugby

Airways Park – Losing wasn’t an option for the fantastic firsts with several starters unavailable for the premier men’s clash with the Clan.

An unwavering commitment to the cause by the cobbled-together lineup for the St. Albert Rugby Football Club’s first 15 produced a satisfying 34-26 performance.

“We were missing nine of our regular starters so to come in here with three guys getting their first ever caps – Billy Thomas, Austin Mazzolini and Josh Freeman – and all three of them played hard graft and brought exactly what we needed, you know your club is in a good place when you’ve got guys like that so that’s what we’re happy about,” said Trent Bennett, a rampaging lock in Saturday’s match as the firsts improved to 7-3 after their fifth victory in a row.

“This game was really important. It could’ve went either way with us and we could’ve just bent over but we said in the pre-game when we got together as a team there are no excuses, we’re not going to walk away from this. If we get a loss, it’s a loss for St. Albert. We love this crest on our chest and every time you get to put on this jersey you’re representing this crest and anything else doesn’t matter, it’s just you and 14 other guys representing your club so you’ve got to bring it,” Bennett added.

Head coach Sam Townsend was popping buttons in the post-game huddle.

“You should be very proud of yourselves today. You showed that we didn’t need those guys with the Wolf Pack,” Townsend said of the four premier lads with the Prairie Wolf Pack at the Canadian Rugby Championships in Calgary.

The effort solidified an already “strong core” of club players, according to Townsend, that includes the terrific thirds (7-2), the top third division team in the Edmonton Rugby Union.

“Keep on working and keep driving us up and forward so we all can reach the pinnacle,” Townsend told the triumphant firsts.

The carrot at the end of the stick is a fourth consecutive Labatt’s Cup.

“This is going to be the last chance before playoffs when we start seeing our real rosters and this was an opportunity for a lot of guys to say I want that shirt come playoffs and make that run for another provincial championship,” Bennett said. “There is a lot of people here getting new jerseys for the first time and they came out and proved they wanted to keep them. It’s great.”

The firsts are a lock to host the Sept. 16 north semifinal against the Strathcona Druids (4-6) or Lep/Tigers (4-7) and the winner will challenge the first-place Nor’Westers (10-1) for the Ken Ann Cup on Sept. 23 to determine the north rep at the provincial final Sept. 30 at Ellerslie Rugby Park.

Back-to-back weekend contests against the Druids is shaping up to be a playoff preview for the firsts. Kickoff times are 4 p.m. Saturday at Lynn Davies Rugby Park and Aug. 26 at SARFC.

“That’s always a tough derby. It’s very intense and a huge rivalry. They’ve beaten us when they’ve been low in the table before,” Bennett said. “If they lose the games against us they’re out of playoffs and if they win a game they play us in playoffs.

“You never know what they’re going to bring. They have lots of good imports and good local young talent like U20 guys so we definitely can’t take the pedal off.

“It’s going to be a similar roster (against the Druids on Saturday) with the Wolf Pack guys still gone (so) anything that stops our roll now is going to hurt us come playoffs and we’re going to need everybody if want that fourth championship.”

The firsts smartly pulled it together after the Clan (2-8) kicked a penalty from long distance three minutes into the second half to make it 21-8.

The opening 40 minutes was a see-saw affair as George Harding knot it at three with an easy penalty kick in the 14th minute and the import standoff also had a huge helping hand in the try by import Jordan Roberts in the 33rd minute to put the firsts on top 8-6.

The Clan replied with tries 14 minutes apart. The second score was converted to end the first half and Nathan Yule of the firsts in the sin-bin over a yellow card for overzealous physicality.

“We came in a little bit nervous and I also think some people wanted to make star plays and some people wanted to hang out and get free tries,” Bennett said. “After that we really settled down. We just realized we’re the better team and we had to start playing like it in the second half. It was going to be a 15 man effort with all of us hitting rucks and keeping the ball.”

Seven minutes after the break, Roberts scooped up a loose ball past the halfway line and zigzagged into the try area. Harding’s conversion was good.

In the 60th minute, Harding finished off a strong push for points in Clan territory with a determined extra effort and his difficult conversion attempt lifted the firsts on top 22-21 for their second lead of the match.

Aggressive ball movement by Paul Flynn, who celebrating his 35th birthday in grand style, and import Adam Conway in the aftermath of a lineout ball from inside the 22-metre line put Harding in position to score.

A few minutes earlier, a galloping ground gainer by Matt Jarvis ended within a couple of metres of the try line.

In the 70th minute, Bennett was the finisher on a five-metre scrum after Flynn rolled his way towards the try line while in the gasp of a defender and the high school rugby product of the Paul Kane Blues used his lanky frame to get possession before spinning out of a tackle to plant the ball down.

Ben Manchester, a second-half sub and U18 junior, chipped in a conversion off the post to extend the lead to 29-21.

“That was just a pure team effort. Flynny got it right down to the one metre line off of that scrum and I saw the line there and I was like we need a try. I grabbed it and got popped pretty good so I was really worried that I was going to get held up there so I just went down it and landed on it (for the try),” said Bennett, who didn’t show any side effects from turning 23 the day before during his inspired showing against the Clan.

A shifty run by Conway sealed the deal with time running out on the Clan as Manchester and Aaron Weicker assisted on the score.

The Clan ended the match with a try as Freeman was sent to the sin-bin for flexing his muscles a tad too aggressively on a tackle.

Townsend saluted the firsts on the game-breaking turnaround after the first half.

“In terms of performance, that second half was exceptional,” he said. “When we wanted to attack the things that we were looking for happened: the intensity, our execution and our detail. It was brilliant. Those were very good tries.”

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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.