Construction is almost complete on the second Labatt’s Cup provincial championship in St. Albert Rugby Football Club history.
After putting together an 11-1 pennant-winning season in the Alberta Cup premier men’s fixtures the playoffs kick off Sept. 13 for the fantastic firsts.
“I said to the boys at the start of the season every game we build a block and we improve every time and that’s really important,” said head coach Jo Hull after the firsts crumbled the Clansmen 67-0 Thursday at the SARFC fields. “We have two more blocks to add. I want that city final and then I want that provincial championship.”
In the north playoff bracket the firsts host the Nor’Westers (2-8) and the winner will line up against the Strathcona Druids (7-4) or the Clan (4-8) in the Ken Ann Cup final Sept. 27. At stake is a berth at provincials Oct. 4 in Calgary.
It’s now or never for the firsts after only one Labatt’s Cup celebration in five trips to provincials in the last six years.
“We definitely have to bring back some silverware,” said Johnny Moloney, captain of the firsts in place of the injured Brett Kelly.
The firsts look unstoppable after posting their second shutout of the season while allowing five or less points in five matches.
“Defence was a key thing for us this year (while averaging 11.2 PA). We let in too many tries last year and it’s very difficult to win games if you’re letting in that many points (averaged 23 PA in 14 matches in 2013),” Hull said. “The big thing for me is consistency. I asked the boys for consistency this season and if you look at our points for (479) and against (134) we’ve shown that. We also showed that tonight. We asked for 80 minutes of consistency but we also asked for no scores against us and the boys delivered.”
It will take a total collapse by the firsts to lose the semifinal after convincing victories of 38-12 and 32-17 against the Nor’Westers but Hull is still leery of the playoff opponents.
“They’ve just come into this league this year and they’re getting better every game. They’re pretty physical and they will want to take it up to us in the forwards. It will be a real tough challenge, to be honest with you,” she said.
Moloney is also cautious about the former second division powerhouse.
“The Nor’Westers are kind of a gnarly team. They just dig in and they never give up. They like the in-tight stuff and we’ve got to match their physicality and then we’ve just got to prove our fitness and strength is better than theirs,” he said. “We know what to expect at this stage but I don’t underrate them. They’re a good team.”
The firsts roar into the playoffs after tearing the Clan apart for 11 tries and six were converted in the surprising tame affair with a female referee from Calgary at the controls.
“Nights like this are really special and they don’t come about too often,” Hull told the players in the post-match huddle. “We asked you guys to finish this in style and 67-nil is finishing it in style. That was bloody well done.
“I stood on that balcony and I’m like, ‘I can’t believe what good rugby we’re playing.’ We asked you boys all to step up and every single one of you guys deserves to very, very proud of yourselves tonight.”
The firsts are undefeated in their last four matches against the Clan after achieving their second-largest margin of victory of the season.
“This win means we’re going into the playoffs on a high note, just knowing that we’re at the top of the league. It was one of many goals we have this season,” Moloney said.
Conor Power, a dazzling back and Irish import, lit up the beleaguered Clan for four tries.
The scoring spree by the firsts started in the third minute with Robert Blunden’s try and ended with Brad Angove’s try on the last play of the match.
At halftime it was a done deal with the firsts leading by 34.
“A good team will never take the foot off the gas, especially when you’re coming to end of the season. You don’t want to start playing bad, you want to keep going and getting better like a well-oiled machine and we want to see how far we can go,” said Moloney, a Rock of Gibraltar at flanker.
A ferocious pack pummeled the Clan in another forward-drive performance by the firsts.
“We’ve put a lot of work into the pack the last couple of weeks after an awful lot of soul searching went on after the Druids’ game (sketchy 13-8 loss in Sherwood Park to stop a seven-game winning streak). We knew the pack didn’t show up that day. The pack wins games and the backs determine by how much and at the moment I think we’re strong in both areas now,” said Moloney, 33, last year’s team MVP.
Whether it’s forwards or backs there are more players than spots on the 22-man playoff roster for Hull to finalize.
“The big thing for a successful team is to have strength and depth and we certainly do. I’ve got two players in each position that can play at that standard to win and I truly believe if we are going to win this thing it’s going to take all of those 30 players,” she said. “At the same time we’ve got the second div competition which we’re still playing in (fourth-place 4-5-1 record with two matches left until the playoffs) and that’s been a big pool this year for our player development. We had second div boys that stepped up tonight and didn’t look out of place.”