Sherwood Park – Mission accomplished.
The fantastic firsts of the St. Albert Rugby Football Club successfully achieved their objective in Friday’s premier men’s match against the Strathcona Druids.
The first division squad rolled up 19 unanswered points in the opening 28 minutes and closed out their fifth consecutive victory by out-scoring the Druids 18-5 during the last 25 minutes.
“We did what we wanted to do. We came in and we beat them,” declared Paul Flynn, a wily 33-year-old prop for the 6-1 firsts after the 37-22 result. “We’re putting distance on third and fourth place in the standings. It’s just us and the (Calgary) Hornets out in front of everybody now. As long as we can stay with the Hornets, we just need them to slip up one time and we’ll jump past them into first and that will be it.”
The Hornets were 6-0 with six bonus points, one less than the firsts, before Saturday’s match against the winless Calgary Irish but the score was unavailable at press time.
The lone loss this season for the Labatt’s Cup provincial champions the last two years was the controversial 28-24 setback to the Hornets on May 28 in Calgary.
“The whole thing about this team is when we concentrate nobody can live with us,” head coach Si Culley told the players in the post-match huddle. “We talked about the ability to rise up, just display a little bit more of what we’re about, and we did.”
The Druids (3-3-1) are the second highest ranked north team in the Alberta Cup table and Flynn expects the firsts will face-off against them in the Ken Ann Cup north final Sept. 24 and a provincial berth at stake.
“This is definitely the second best team in the north. We’re going to play these guys probably in the northern final so this is a warm-up for that,” said Flynn, following the team’s 16 consecutive win against a north team in league and playoffs combined, dating back to 2014, when the Druids upset the firsts 13-8 halfway through the season.
“We’ve got one more game against them at home (Sept. 1) so we know what they’ve got now and we’ve just got to keep it rolling and maybe clean up a few of the mistakes here and there.”
The first of six tries against the Druids was scored in the 22nd minute by the unstoppable Byron Elliott from close range of the try line and Andy (Pinky) Kelleher split the uprights from a difficult spot near the touchline between the 22 and 40 metre lines.
After the kick-off, the firsts wasted no time adding to their lead as Orrin Farris finished off the attack after strong efforts by Cam Larson and AJ King advancing the ball.
King’s try off an errant pass by the Druids in their end was converted by Kelleher in the 28th minute.
The Druids replied with converted tries five minutes apart to trail by five.
Before halftime, scrumhalf Matt Herod was sentenced to the sin-bin with a yellow card. The Druids also lost a man to the sin-bin four minutes into the second half as the rain started to fall and lightning strikes in the distance.
After the Druids pulled to within two at 19-17 with a penalty kick from outside the 22, Kelleher was unsuccessful on a makeable penalty attempt in the 52nd minute as the rain stopped.
The firsts then subbed on three players, including Matt Mackenzie in the backs, and his spirited sprint down the touchline in the 55th minute put the firsts back on track after the Druids closed ground on the frontrunners.
“We got a little bit complacent when we got out to a pretty healthy lead in the first half. I think there was a feeling among the guys that we were going to run them over but they came back with two quick tries and I think that snapped everyone into shape,” Flynn said.
Two minutes after Mackenzie’s scoring burst, Antony Fitch motored through the defensive line to pad the lead to 32-17.
The Druids responded with a try and the firsts wrapped it up with Trent Bennett scoring a rare try off a series of dummies after some heavy lifting by Johnny Moloney, another second half sub, following a successful lineout ball.
“It wasn’t the performance of the last 40 (minutes) of last week but at times we matched it,” said Culley, in reference to the 42-19 win over the Calgary Canucks (3-3) at SARFC after falling behind 14-8 at halftime.
“Our physicality improved again. We’re not letting anyone bully us,” Culley added. “Our defence in the first half was absolutely outstanding despite the two tries in about three minutes.”
Superior depth also played a major role against the Druids.
“There’s probably 30 guys on this team that can play on any first division team in this league and it’s a huge benefit to us,” Flynn said. “The core of this team has been the same for the last at last four or five years and we had a really good core for the previous four years. A few of those guys stepped back and retired and did things like have families and we had other guys step up into those roles and there are a lot of young guys on this team who are taking leadership roles.
“We’re just filling in the gaps with good players. Whenever we find a guy who is looking for a good team to play for we want to get that guy and get him in. It’s the same with the (new) coach. Si has been amazing for us all season and his style of play is fast and we’re a quick team so it fits great with us. Hopefully we can roll that forward all the way.”
A major goal for the firsts – winners of three provincial crowns since 2010 in seven trips to the final in the last eight years – is to play a full 80 minutes.
“We have a tendency to start slow and it takes us a minute or a few minutes to get up to 100 per cent but once we’re at full pace we stick it out until the end of the game. There is a lot of teams in this league that are 70, 60 minute teams and they can’t stick well with us right until the end so you will notice a lot of our games are being won in the second half and that’s because of fitness and the drive and we’ve got a deep bench too,” Flynn said.
Up next are the Nor’Westers (3-3) Aug. 6 at 4 p.m. at SARFC.
SCRUM BALLS: The third division men coughed up leads of 26-12 at halftime and 29-22 early in the fourth quarter in Friday’s 41-29 loss to the Druids (4-2) in Sherwood Park.
The thirds (2-6), last year’s Visser Cup champions in the Edmonton Rugby Union and winners of the Digby Dinnie Cup at provincials, tackle the Clan (3-3-1) Aug. 6 at 12 p.m. at SARFC.