Calgary Rugby Park – The will to win was greater than the fear of losing for the team to beat in premier men’s rugby in Saturday’s tug-of-war with the Calgary Hornets.
In dire straights of blowing a 24-0 halftime advantage after surrendering 19 straight points, St. Albert’s fantastic firsts defended their try line with a ferocious push back while a man short for the last eight minutes of play and the Hornets buzzing offensively.
“We thought we had it in the first half. We thought we were going to run away with it and credit to them: They came back at us and they made a game of it. It was close,” said vice-captain Paul Flynn after the satisfying 24-19 decision by the bloodied and bruised firsts.
“When they started coming back at us in the second half everybody was still thinking we have a good lead and we’re still safe and then when they got to within five points of us everybody looked at the scoreboard and said this is too close and we’ve got to shut the door and credit to us: There were a few goal line stands where we did that and we were able to hang on in the end.”
The clash of titans featured the winners of the last six Labatt’s Cup provincial championships. It also marked the third victory in a row by the firsts over the Hornets in their backyard, highlighted by last year’s 39-5 dismantlement of the three-time defending champions in the final, after a winless stretch of eight matches that including the 2009, 2011 and 2013 Labatt’s Cups.
“Anytime we can beat the Hornets it’s a huge win for us. We have a very huge rivalry with them,” said Flynn, a veteran hooker and the men’s club captain on the board of directors. “We are the two best teams in the league and I look forward to playing them again (Aug. 29 at Ellerslie Rugby Park). It will be close again I’m sure.”
It was also an enormous bounce-back effort by the firsts (2-1) after the previous weekend’s 43-17 spanking by the Irish (2-0) in the Cow Town.
“After the way we played last week, to come back and play at least the first half the way we played this game was a huge difference,” Flynn said. “If we had played the game last week the way we played the first half of this game, or even this game as a whole, I don’t think the Irish would’ve done what they did to us and I don’t think the Irish will do to us the next time (June 20 in St. Albert) what they did to us last week.”
The firsts put the boots to the Hornets (2-1) in the opening 40 minutes with four tries and two conversions while dominating the scrums, lineouts, time of possession and territory play.
The second half, however, was the total opposite with the firsts on their back heels and the Hornets charging forward with reckless abandon. Their third try, a converted effort with less than 15 minutes remaining, left the firsts clinging to a five-point lead.
“It was a tale of two halves. In the first half we stuck to our game plan and pumped them in the forwards and then in the second half we turned around and got away from that. It didn’t look very good. Maybe we should’ve stuck with plan A,” said Team Canada prop Andy Tiedemann after his first match with the home club since 2009.
Jason Gagnier, a newcomer from Victoria via the Velox RFC at second row, stole a lineout ball around the Hornets’ five-metre line and sprinted into the try area in the ninth minute. A long kick for touch set up the scoring play.
In the 16th minute, shortly after a Hornet was sentenced to the sin-bin, the firsts physically manhandled the opposition for a pushover try from the five-metre line as player/coach Clay Panga, the team’s number-eight and former Hornets’ captain, touched the ball down. Antony Fitch kicked the conversion.
Orrin Farries was the finisher on the team’s third try in the 19th minute as almost every player on the firsts put their hands on the ball before the strong flanker crossed the try line. Key plays by Adam Bontus, Fitch and Flynn allowed the firsts to roll over the Hornets en route to the score.
The second pushover try by the firsts, with Panga doing the scoring honours, left the Hornets licking their wounds in the 23rd minute. Fitch’s conversion attempt was good.
In the 30th minute, the firsts stopped the Hornets in their tracks on a penalty play outside the five-metre line to keep them off the scoreboard.
Lino Filisione, a New Zealand import at scrumhalf, second-row Lucas Albornoz, who was sent to the sin-bin late in the match and the firsts leading by a try at 24-19, and the determined Panga were among several St. Albert standouts in the first half.
Khaleb Whitehurst, an Australian import at flanker, also flexed his muscles throughout the tussle and in the 45 minute was joined by a Hornet in the sin-bin over a disagreement that caught the referee’s attention.
“We came out and played great in the first half. We were hitting up everything, running strong, breaking tackles, supporting each other, getting it to the side and then going coast to coast as they call it,” Flynn said. “In the second half it completely switched on us. I think it was a fitness issue frankly. We started to get a little bit slower to the rucks and mauls, a little bit weaker in the tackles and they showed their skill. In this division if you let off the gas at all then it’s a game again if you know what I mean.”
Or, as coach Simon Hill suggested in the post-game huddle, “It would’ve ended up like a cricket score” if the firsts had performed like they did in the first half.
Things started to unravel after prop Angus (Gus) MacDonald was carried off the pitch by his front-row comrades – Flynn and Tiedemann – in the 36th minute with a suspected broken ankle. It turned out to be a bad sprain that will sideline the jovial MacDonald for a few weeks.
The trio beat up the Hornets’ front row in the first half and Tiedemann’s massive impact was obviously in every scrum.
“Playing with Andy Tiedemann is an honour. He is a world-class athlete. He plays for Canada. He’s a great guy and the difference he made in the scrums today was evident,” Flynn said. “However, that being said, when Gus went out clearly that was a big difference to our scrums. In the first half we were dominating and pushing them over. We scored those tries pushing it over and credit to Gus and his strength and his power in the scrum and the difference that he makes because when he went out it was a completely different scrum.”
Flynn, 32, ended up moving to loosehead as James Brown subbed on at front row and Tiedemann switched to tighthead after MacDonald’s injury.
“I’m not used to playing prop but sometimes that happens. We’ve got a lot of new, young players and sometimes you’ve got to shuffle around and for me as a veteran you’ve just got to pick up the slack and that’s what I tried to do,” said Flynn, who was joined on the first 15 by MacDonald, Fitch, Farries, Bontus, Justin (Bomber) Armitt and Brad Angove from last year’s starting lineup in the provincial final. They were among nine players in Calgary that were part of the team’s 22-man Labatt’s Cup roster.
Tiedemann, 26, was parachuted in for the must-win game and was clearly the best player on the pitch.
“It was an absolute honour to play my club. I love coming back, seeing some of the good old boys and some new faces as well that I haven’t played with before. It was just nice to be part of something like St. Albert rugby again,” said Tiedemann, who recently staged an instructional scrum session at the club with his Team Canada buddy, Hubert Buydens.
The six-foot, 260-pound scrum machine relished the opportunity to go toe-to-toe against his former teammates on the Calgary-based Prairie Wolfpack in the Canadian Rugby Championships circuit.
“There are definitely a few Wolfpack guys on the field so hands in faces and fingers up noses. It was kind of fun out there,” said the product of the Lorne Akins and Paul Kane rugby programs.
Tiedemann is back home for a brief spell after his second pro season and the first with the Plymouth Albion RFC, where he was primarily a tight-head prop.
“I’m feeling pretty good right now. I took a solid month off just to hit the gym and I’m looking to get back into a bit of game fitness and work my way from there,” said the member of Team Canada at the 2011 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand. “We weren’t as successful as I had wanted it to be (at 3-17-2 as Plymouth was relegated to National League 1) but it’s a lot of rugby and the quality level was what I was looking for over there; forward oriented and lots of scrums, lots of lineouts so it was just a great learning experience for me,” he said. “It was steady progression in my scrum development and I’m just hoping that pays dividends leading up to the World Cup run.
“They select in early August for the World Cup (Sept. 18 to Oct. 31 in England) and fingers crossed I will be involved in the lead-up to that.”