The terrific thirds are pushing the reset button instead of the panic button after suffering only their second loss of the season.
The third division leaders are 7-2 with one match remaining before the playoffs kick off in the Edmonton Ruby Union following the 45-8 mishap against the Parkland Sharks, a 5-4 team that was fortified by several of their second division players for Friday’s match at the St. Albert Rugby Football Club.
“This game is a real reset for us to get us focused on the physicality and the defence that we’re going to have to play in the playoffs. This was a really, really good team that they brought today, absolutely,” said player/coach Nathan Reis after Parkland ended the run of five consecutive victories by the thirds.
Injuries, vacation commitments and the trickle down effect of reinforcing the premier men’s team for Saturday’s tilt with the Clan – with players as replacements for the starters that are with the Prairie Wolf Pack at the Canadian Rugby Championships in Calgary – forced the thirds to re-jig their lineup for Parkland.
One of those players pressed into service was forward Eric Wynychuk, who will celebrate his 50th birthday next month.
“The fact that we had 18 players on our roster today with the number of people missing speaks very well for the club,” said Reis, who filled in at scrumhalf to quarterback the team.
“First time in 20 years I’ve played scrumhalf,” said Reis, a longtime SARFC player who is on call when needed in the backs by the thirds while serving as the team’s sideline general.
The first of seven Parkland tries was scored in the fifth minute and it was 12-0 when Andrew (Kiwi) Marsden kicked a penalty before the end of the first quarter.
Marsden, the inspiration leader of the thirds at standoff, uncharacteristically missed two penalties in the first half as Parkland led 33-3.
The lone try by the thirds was produced by import Rory Browne at hooker late in the third quarter.
“This year, the mix of over-35 older gentlemen that are providing leadership and the younger under-21 players that are providing a lot of the energy and the incredible speed has been very successful for us wearing teams down but it didn’t happen today,” Reis said.
The thirds are still in great shape to do some serious damage in the playoffs and the result of the Aug. 26 match against the Strathcona Druids (6-2) should determine whether the championship contenders have a bye into the Sept. 16 semifinals as one of the top two finishers in the ERU table or will host an opening round match Sept. 9.
Kickoff against the Druids is 2 p.m. at SARFC.
The Visser Cup winner in the Sept. 23 ERU final at Ellerslie Rugby Park advances to the Digby Dinnie Cup provincial final Sept. 30 at Ellerslie.
Two years ago, the thirds captured their first Visser and Digby Digby cups since 1997, but last year’s 2-9 team struggled without the guidance of then SARFC men’s head coach Si Culley, who basically ignored the thirds while focusing on the premier squad that three-peated as Labatt’s Cup provincial champions.
Sam Townsend, the fourth SARFC head coach in four years, has worked in tandem with Reis, a member of the 2015 championship-winning thirds that included players he coached as an assistant on the Paul Kane High School rugby team, to ensure the thirds are locked and loaded for success.
“Kudos has to go to Sam in terms of the game plan that he put in place, specifically for us thirds where we’re trying to attack to space all the time rather than running into giant fat guys and getting ourselves beat up and Kiwi as well as the leader for this team. He has really taken that role and ran with it,” Reis said. “Without Kiwi’s leadership and the game plan that Sam put in place we would be struck as men versus boys more often but because of the way we’re playing to open space we’re doing quite well.”