The demise of the fantastic firsts has been greatly exaggerated.
Written off as pretenders instead of contenders during the worst start in years after three consecutive Labatt’s Cup provincial championships, the premier men’s team silenced its critics with a massive effort to derail the previously undefeated Calgary Hornets on a glorious Saturday afternoon at the St. Albert Rugby Football Club.
The 22-12 achievement was the fourth win in a row for the 6-3 first division squad and the loss for the Hornets (9-1) was only the second in 24 matches in two years, including last year’s 25-20 provincial setback to SARFC in Calgary.
“The Hornets are one of the top teams and for us to put that performance out there is huge for us. It’s absolutely monumental,” said Duncan Maguire, a marvelous winger, after scoring two crucial tries in the sixth victory in seven league and playoff clashes by the firsts against the Hornets.
The storyline between the winners of the last eight Labatt’s Cups (2009 for the Hornets and 2010 for firsts before three-straight by the Hornets that was duplicated by SARFC) was how the firsts would stack up against the team that handed the Nor’Westers (9-1) their only loss this season, 33-27 the previous weekend in Calgary.
The Nor’Westers are the top north team in the Alberta Cup premier table in large part to 57-26 and 51-3 wallopings of the firsts in June.
“Losing those two games to the Nor’Westers was a big hit for us but I don’t think there was any pressure more per se, for this game. We had nothing to lose except to prove to ourselves that we can play with the big boys in the league,” Maguire said. “We made a big statement today to the rest of the league and I hope that now no team can take us lightly and we won’t take any team lightly.”
Another defeat would have been a crushing blow to the team’s psyche.
“This win is absolutely huge – especially after those few losses our heads were definitely down in the first half of the season but we said after last week we’ve got to start coming back up and start reaching form before playoffs come,” Maguire said.
The firsts were coming off their largest margin of victory of the season with 11 tries in the 69-5 basing of the Calgary Rams (3-6) at SARFC.
“Last week was definitely a momentum changer for us. Having a big win like that really proved that we’re starting to take form,” Maguire said. “The Hornets are always one of the top clubs in the league and today was definitely one of the most challenging games we’ve had yet this season. All 23 players in red and blue performed. Every single player stepped up. There were also two people who made debuts, the two Bens (juniors Ben Manchester and Ben Miller), so that was very exciting.”
So why did the firsts wait this long to play fantastic?
“I think it’s a big attitude adjustment to be honest. We’re really putting our heads down and making an effort in training and it’s showing in games. We’re getting more commitment and things are finally clicking because what we’re doing in the game are the things Sam (Townsend, the head coach) is implementing in training,” Maguire said. “In previous seasons we had the artillery to be able to win games off some individual players but this year we’re really realizing that we need to work as a unit. All 15 players have to be working together on the field in order for that to happen. It’s finally taking shape and it’s awesome to see.”
Townsend praised the hard work and attitude of the SARFC lads in the post-game huddle as a provincial four-peat no longer seems like a long-shot.
“If we keep pushing it, we keep working, we keeping turning up Tuesday and Thursday, we keep wanting it and we keep believing it’s going to happen and we’ll get there but it has to happen out there (at training) on the Tuesday and Thursday for it to happen here,” said the fourth men’s head coach in four years at SARFC. “The prems are back now but we have to keep pushing and pushing to bring this all the way through.”
The Hornets, a classy bunch like the Nor’Westers, saluted the firsts for a job well done.
“They gave us an awesome game and that’s all we can ask for from them,” said captain John Anderson. “We started fast, which is a positive for us, and then St. Albert just played the full 80. That’s what they did. They were down and they just kept going so props to them.
“I can’t fault our boys for anything. The boys worked their asses off,” added the Hornets’ eight-man. “It was a wicked game by both sides. I’m just proud of the day really for rugby.”
The Hornets drew first blood in the fifth minute with the legendary Dustin McPherson the finisher on the scoring drive off the opening kickoff.
The teams traded scoring chances before import standoff George Harding missed a penalty kick from outside the Hornets’ 22-metre line in the 19th minute.
The firsts pulled even in the 35th minute after a five-metre lineout turned into a dominant maul for Robert Blunden to plant the ball down in the try area.
Both sides also held up a try each as the first half ended at five apiece.
The Hornets regained the lead six minutes into the second half with a converted try.
Four minutes later. Adam Bontus reached the Hornets’ try area with a determined effort to crack the try line.
After the win, the Hornets selected Bontus as the SARFC backs’ player of the match and Blunden was honoured as the top forward.
The firsts continued pushing for the go-ahead points after Bontus busted loose and in the 63rd minute Maguire flew down the pitch in pursuit of the ball off Harding’s quick boot for the pivotal try. Harding’s conversion made it 17-12.
“Nobody was back there and they were pressuring up so I just told George to put a little kick through and I was able to get there and get it down,” Maguire said. “It was very lucky to be honest.”
After a stout defensive stand by the firsts, Maguire found space going at pace with the ball for the insurance try with seven minutes remaining.
“The forwards did such a good job at a few phases to suck in their defenders and we noticed that there were gaps out wide so Adam called for the ball from Ben Manchester and he just put out a big pass to me and I was fortunate that there really wasn’t anyone in front of me and I was able to go for it so I really didn’t do anything except run straight,” said Maguire, 27, the recipient of three 15s caps and four 7s caps with Team Canada.
Anderson, 26, summed up the differences between losing to the firsts and beating the Nor’Westers.
“St. Albert definitely had the home side advantage. They had a lot of wind in their sails going that way. They definitely had more pride going into it,” he said. “The Nor’Westers had a tougher challenge of playing a bit earlier in (the day) on the road but they put in a full game as well.”
The Hornets still have a bad taste in their mouths after the fifth provincial final between the premier powerhouses since 2009 (three wins for the Hornets and two for SARFC).
The 2016 classic was decided with a lengthy goal-line stand by the firsts that ended 2:26 into injury time and the Hornets basically within arm’s reach of the try area.
It was 12-0 Hornets after 24 minutes and 17-12 six minutes in the second half but the firsts battled back and in the 70th minute a converted try put them up 22-20 and a penalty kick in the 75th minute increased the lead to five points.
“It sucked. That would’ve been an undefeated season for the boys and they stole it on us,” Anderson said. “Going into today there were a few guys in the locker room that were in that game that definitely had it on their minds but we go into every game thinking it’s the final. We have to win it no ifs, ands or buts. We’ve got to win it.”
The Hornets are expected to return to the provincial final Sept. 30 at Ellerslie Rugby Park as the southern rep despite a slightly different style of play this year.
“We have a bit more pace and bit more flair. Last year we stuck it into the forwards a bit,” Anderson said.
The firsts are now in the driver’s seat to host the Sept. 16 north semifinal against the Strathcona Druids or Lep/Tigers, both teams are 4-5, for a shot at the Nor’Westers in the Sept. 23 Ken Ann Cup north final for a berth at provincials.
Premier action resumes Aug. 12 when the firsts visit the lowly Clan (1-7) at 4:15 p.m. at Airway Park and the Hornets and Saints (3-7) hook up at 1:45 p.m. in Calgary.