The 2008 Alberta Cup pennant winners and provincial finalists in premier men’s rugby are on a mission to prove last year’s success wasn’t a fluke.
“We will still beat people. That’s our priority,” eight-man Byron Elliott told the Gazette after the St. Albert men’s first division crushed the visiting Druids 38-10 in Saturday’s season debut. “This win today will send a statement across the league. The Druids have been playing first div for a long time. They’re a well respected team and our firsts put 28 points clear on them.”
The Druids were no match for a faster, tougher and smarter St. Albert side loaded with arguably more talent than last year’s juggernaut line-up of stars that compiled a stunning 11-2-1 league record after capturing the second division provincial crown in 2007.
“We’ve lost a couple of key players [David Owen and Ashley Hanson] but we’ve added key players too with talent,” Elliott said. “We want to prove that St. Albert is not just a team of one or two players. We’ve got a squad of about 25 players that could step in and do the job. We have depth this year, which I don’t think we had last year and that bodes well for us.”
The most talked about addition is Aaron Takel, a former Druid who coached the Lep/Tigers’ senior women last year. The scouting report on Takel is that he is an even more superior kicker than Owen or Hanson, two of the very best to play at the St. Albert Rugby Football Club.
“I really want to be on a team where the guys set their goals high and you can’t really set them any higher than a provincial title this year,” said Takel, 27.
The regional development manager for northern Alberta junior rugby was recruited by assistant coach Liam Hutchinson to join St. Albert’s first 15. They are also co-coaches with U17 Alberta for the 2009 Rugby Canada National Championships Festival.
“He asked me if I was available and ready to play again and I took him up on his offer,” said Takel, who played semi-pro in the Welsh premier division before coming over to Canada. “It’s the ambition by everybody to better themselves from last year that was the big drawing factor. There is a lot of commitment and talent here and I want to be a part of that. Obviously the facility is great here. So is the structure and the support from the old boys, as well as a great coach [Chal Smyth] with a proven background, so it was really an easy decision to come here.”
In his first premier match since 2006 with the Sherwood Park-based Druids, the diminutive fullback with legs of steel tore up a path into the try area 10 minutes into the second half.
“I took a nice offload from Nick Dragich and hit a gap with a bit of pace and went through,” he said. “It was very nice to score on the old team.”
Takel also converted his own try to make it 19-3. He scored with scrum-half Jake Robinson in the sin bin for some nasty rucking in the last minute before halftime. After his lengthy suspension, Robinson returned to the pitch with a vengeance. The 2008 recipient of the club’s most improved player award cracked the try line off a ruck with two determined strides seven minutes after Takel’s score.
With 10 minutes to play Robinson closed out the St. Albert scoring with a cheeky try down the right wing. Callum Wilson stole a lineout ball in the Druids end and flipped it to the fleet-footed Robinson to scoot in untouched.
After a slow start by St. Albert standards, the firsts overcame a 3-0 deficit with 38 unanswered points. It was 12-3 at halftime on tries by Elliott and Dominik Jenni and a Takel convert.
“Once we started to use space and offload the ball we looked dangerous,” said Takel, who converted four of St. Albert’s six tries.
Elliott’s try off a ruck near the try line in the 26th minute opened the floodgates. Three minutes later, Jenni rumbled down the field with fire in his eyes and bullied through a desperation tackle for the team’s second try.
“Once we got a couple of good breaks the momentum started to go our way. After that we dominated and imposed our game plan on them. They couldn’t keep up with our wide, expansive mobile game of keeping the ball alive. They couldn’t deal with it,” Elliott said. “To have a big win like that over a city rival at the start of the season can only prove positive. There is a lot of things to work on like missed tackles and some decision making and that will come with time with much sharpness.”
The Druids were outclassed in several areas, especially in the forwards as St. Albert beat up their tough guys with a pulverizing attack. Brett Kelly and Kyle Gilmour were wrecking balls on the pitch. In the first half Kelly, a U20 Team Canada flanker, was warned by the referee to keep it clean. Gilmour, the team’s MVP in 2008, was forced to leave the game late in the second half with a bloody nose after planting his face into a ball carrier. Robinson’s jersey was also covered in Druids’ blood after the win.
Dragich was another mountain of man that pushed the Druids around like rag dolls. He drew the loudest applause of the match with a run-scoring try from midfield with 15 minutes left to play. He shook off one tackle and then sidestepped the last defender around the 22-metre line with a fake pass before making a beeline into the try area. With shoulders the size of Texas, he barely squeeze his way through the posts.
“We’re bigger than we were last year in terms of stature but we haven’t lost any of our mobility. Not only are we still physical but we’re also still mobile enough to play the wide expansive game that we want to do,” said Elliott, who doesn’t need an invite when it comes to stirring up trouble on the field. “We’re just hoping that it bodes well for us later on in the season so we can compete with these big, slow heavy packs and be as physical as them and still have the gas to go around them.”
It was only fitting Elliott recorded the first try of the season after missing last year’s semifinal (26-20 over the Calgary Hornets) and final (24-10 loss to the Calgary Saints) with a busted jaw, suffered in the quarter-finals (30-12 over the Calgary Irish).
“I’ve been waiting for this game for a long time. It’s eight months in the making,” said Elliott, who was presented with the club’s Golden Crutch award for injuries in 2008. “I hated watching the boys lose that final last year. It was a killer. Every player thinks they can make a difference, whether they’re injured or not. You want to be out there so you can be a part of what is happening but what made it even worse was I couldn’t even shout encouragement from the sideline. That was really frustrating because it was such an emotional day.”
Elliott, 25, has been a fixture at the club since coming over as a 20-year-old from Doncaster in South Yorkshire. In county rugby he’s been to two national finals and won them both at Twickenham. He rejoined St. Albert’s first 15 after captaining his club team, Wheatley Hills, to the English finals last year.
“I like St. Albert. I came back this time to try and make it my home. I’ve had some good times here,” said the fan favourite among the females, with several holding up signs asking for his hand in marriage during the players’ post-game salute to the crowd.
The next Alberta Cup match is Friday versus the Clansmen at 7 p.m. at Ellerslie Rugby Park.