Ellerslie Rugby Park – St. Albert’s fantastic firsts are back where they belong as provincial challengers for the Labatt’s Cup.
After a one-year hiatus the first 15 make a triumphant return to their fifth premier men’s final in six years after reducing the rival Clansmen to rubble in the Ken Ann Cup north final Saturday.
“It’s great to have this kind of a feeling again,” said a smiling Johnny Moloney, a second-row Irishman with blood splattered across his face in the aftermath of the 32-5 playoff punch-up.
“The first year I was here, which was two years ago, we got to the final and there was this type of buzz but it’s a bit more now. I think it means more to the boys,” Moloney added. “We needed to get back into the final. We’ve had such an up-and-down season and last season was such a disaster that we need a win. This club needs a win. The players need a win and we have such exceptional players on this team that we need to win for them. We also need to win for our coaches and all the staff in the backroom.”
Standing in the way of a second Labatt’s Cup in four years are the Calgary Hornets, provincial champions three of the last four years. Kickoff is 4 p.m. this Saturday at Ellerslie. Admission is $5 and youths 12 and under get in free.
The Hornets rained on St. Albert’s parade at provincials in 2009 (a wild 24-22 affair to derail a perfect season by the firsts) and 2011 (31-13 to stop an 11-game winning streak by the 2010 champions).
“I can’t wait to beat the Hornets,” Moloney said with daggers in his eyes.
However, the firsts are winless in seven matches against the Hornets.
“We always respect previous results but we don’t dwell on it and we move on,” said Jo Hull, head coach of the 8-5 firsts. “We’ll give the Hornets as much respect as we give any team but we’re going into it to win it and that’s our focus. We’ll build on our performance from today and we’ll go into it with confidence because we showed today we can work as a team.
“It will be tough though. We know what we’re up against. They’ve got good solid structure within that team but we can do it.”
Captain Brett Kelly – one of only nine players in Saturday’s lineup who was on the 2011 roster for the provincial final – echoed Hull’s sentiments in the post-game team huddle.
“This is a stepping stone for next week,” announced Kelly, sporting a nasty welt around his left eye. “We earned this boys, right from the start of the season to hoist that cup above our heads. It’s a sweet feeling, boys. You want to be there. Let’s train this week for it and bring it.”
This year the Hornets (12-1) rocked the firsts 58-10 in June at Ellerslie and were lucky to escape with a 34-28 decision in July in Calgary.
“We’re going to need a full 80 against the Hornets if we want to beat them,” said Kyle Gilmour, a beast at eight-man against the Clan. “Today was probably the first time we’ve played a full 80 minutes all year. We’ve got to be happy with that going into the final but we’ve got more work to do this week coming up and we won’t be happy until we get the championship.”
The firsts are undefeated in five matches after giving the Hornets a tough time.
“It could’ve been a bit discouraging if we got blown out but since the last time we lost to the Hornets we’ve been on a little bit of a roll. We’ve really built towards this point in the year,” said Gilmour, who was among a handful of players in the north final who won a second division provincial Lor-Ann Cup in 2007 with St. Albert’s first 15 at 18-1.
This year’s trip to provincials is extra special because of whom the firsts pumped to get there. Winning seasons at the St. Albert Rugby Football Club are not totally based on championships but on wins and losses against the despised Clan.
Last year the Clan embarrassed the firsts 61-15 in the north final after losing the 2010 and 2011 Ken Ann Cups to St. Albert.
But the second win in a row against the Clan after four consecutive losses was the cherry on top of the cake.
“I’m incredibly proud of this team. You guys stepped up and you played as a team. I asked you to believe and I asked you to play together and that’s what you did, so I thank you for that,” Hull told her players before the cup presentation in front of a vocal St. Albert cheering section.
An unrelenting physical pack, with the starting front-row trio of Aaron Millard, Irish import Colum Murphy and the bearded Paul Flynn working together as the team’s tip of the spear, inflicted agony on a Clan side that prides itself on playing with an edge.
“The work ethic by the forwards today was just absolutely faultless. They gave us a really good platform,” Hull said.
The 27-point margin of defeat flattered the Clan, who scored a meaningless try on the last play of the game.
“They might have been in our half maybe once and missed the kick for points (from inside the 40-metre line in the 27th minute and the firsts up 5-0). That says a lot about our defence and our attack for just keeping the ball and working,” Gilmour said.
Despite the firsts dominating time of possession in the first half, the only points were scored by winger Josh Elliott in the 16th minute. Troy Jeffs missed the conversion.
“We didn’t let (the 5-0 halftime lead) discourage us. We just kept working and we didn’t let them in the game. It was a good character builder for us,” Gilmour said.
The scoring play started deep in the St. Albert corner of the pitch, when the gritty Brad Angove smartly fielded a kick and ran for tough yards before Gilmour grabbed the ball and the six-foot-two, 220-pound sculpted slab of granite bullied his way past several tacklers towards midfield. A series of pick-and-go plays and hard running by a number of firsts that left the Clan falling over themselves resulted in Elliott touching the ball down.
In the 26th minute inside-centre Adam Bontus was sentenced to the sin-bin for a spell after breaking one of the very few laws in rugby. Bontus, a former junior B enforcer with the St. Albert Merchants, who pulled off a brilliant defensive play to pick off a pass inside the 22-metre line in the 13th minute, was serenaded by Clan fans with “Cheater! Cheater! Cheater!” during his walk of shame to the sin-bin area.
Two minutes into the second half, Jeffs split the uprights from the 40 and four minutes later the import standoff from Australia kicked a penalty from inside the 22 to make it 11-0.
In the 54th minute Sam Norris, a New Zealand import at fullback, tracked down a ball he booted along the ground into the try area for the team’s second try. After a gallant run across the 40 by forward Byron Elliott, his pass fell at the feet of Norris and he kicked the bouncing ball forward and out-raced the Clan to recover it for the try. Jeffs kicked the conversion.
In the 59th minute Gilmour’s explosive try-scoring romp from outside the 22 and Jeffs’ conversion left the Clan down by 25 points.
“A loose ball popped out of the ruck and I just picked it up and nobody was really around me fortunately and I just touched it down under the posts,” said Gilmour, 25.
Earlier in the week it was announced that Gilmour, speedy back Duncan Maguire and SARFC alumni Andy Tiedemann, a national team prop, and forward Kyle Baille were named to Canada’s 25-man roster for the IRB Americas Rugby Championship this month in Langford, B.C.
“Obviously it’s a huge honour anytime you get to represent your country and it’s something I’ve been striving for since the last time I did it (with the national 7s). I’m looking forward to it. It will be good to be in the professional environment of it all,” said Gilmour, who already has a handful of caps with the national 7s.
Mitch Millett, who subbed on near the end of the match in the backs, rounded out the scoring by slicing through the defensive line from outside the 22.
A ferocious blast up the gut by the intimidating six-foot-five Moloney in Clan territory set the stage for Millett’s try.
“Any time you play the Clan you’re not going to expect to get an easy game and we’re happy to come away with the result,” said Moloney, 32, who had a spring in his step after the electrician and wife, Helen, celebrated the arrival of their first child, Conor William Moloney, into the world on Sept. 25.