Ellerslie Rugby Park – The tradition continues for St. Albert’s fantastic firsts.
An unprecedented fourth straight appearance in the provincial final – and the fifth for the first 15 since winning the 2007 second division playoff crown – kicks off Saturday between the reigning Labatt’s Cup champions and the first-place Calgary Hornets. The clash of titans starts at 4 p.m. at Ellerslie Rugby Park. Admission is $5.
“We’ll be ready and prepared,” declared head coach Chal Smyth after the firsts battled from behind with a gallant effort to beat the Clansmen 22-12 last weekend for the Ken Ann Cup in the northern Alberta final. “Any time you can get into a provincial final anything can happen, but we’ve got a veteran group that knows what it takes to win. We really learned from our two losses [in the provincial final]and from last year when we finally pulled it off.”
Winners of 11 premier matches in a row, the firsts haven’t lost since the Hornets schooled them 27-14 in St. Albert in week three in the Alberta Cup fixtures.
“We can compete with anybody,” said Smyth, who is a sparkling 50-9-1 since 2008 as the field general for the firsts. “It’s a great feat to make it to provincials. It shows year after year the guys keep buying into the game plan that I put in front of them. We’re always on the same wavelength. We always adapt to whatever adversity is going on in the season.
“We’re one big family that has one goal and that’s to win provincial championships.”
The Hornets are equally as prolific as the firsts. They derailed St. Albert’s quest for an undefeated season in the 2009 final, a wicked 24-22 affair at Ellerslie. Last year, with first place on the line, they handily beat the firsts 26-10 in Red Deer in the last game before the playoffs.
The Hornets are 12-2 going into provincials after blasting the second-place Calgary Saints 50-12 in the southern Alberta final. Smyth was anxious to get a report from his spies at the game following the most satisfying victory of the year by St. Albert.
“I’m going to get a little bit of information on the Hornets’ game plan and what their strengths are and what their weaknesses are and we’ll put a game plan together to beat them.
“I want to win provincials, not just Edmonton. This is just the tip of what we want to accomplish as a club this year.”
If the Hornets had scouts checking out the emotional rollercoaster between St. Albert and the Clan, they would have been impressed with the pride and passion the firsts displayed in scoring two pivotal tries during a dominating second-half performance.
“The boys kept imposing their will on the Clan. They made a couple of mistakes and we executed on them,” Smyth said.
The Clan led 12-10 at halftime after missing a penalty kick from outside the 22-metre line from an angle in the 35th minute.
“We had a chat at halftime and said we’re going to get our hearts into the game and show that we want it,” said scrumhalf Jake Robinson, who kicked a clutch penalty in the 33rd minute from inside the halfway line. “We spread out on defence. We maintained possession and we started playing a territory game. We played in their end instead of trying to run out of our own half. Fortunately for us they made a few mistakes in their own end, which caused turnovers and we capitalized.”
All the action was centred deep in Clan territory as the firsts attacked the try. Robinson, captain Brett Kelly, fullback Karim Lynch, British import Chris Ealey and flashy winger Duncan Maguire had golden chances to score but were shut out of the try area by a desperate defensive line, some ill-timed penalties and kicks for touch by the rattled-looking Clan.
In the 59th minute Ashley Hanson scooped up a loose ball around midfield and darted towards the 22 before dishing it off to winger Matt Jarvis near the touchline. The former fifth-year tailback with the Alberta Golden Bears shook off a tackle at the five-metre line and twisted his way into the try area to make it 15-12.
“I just saw Ash make that turnover and I knew I had to run with him. Once he drew a couple of guys in, he got it out to me and I just had to make a couple of moves on some guys and put it in,” Jarvis said. “When their guy grabbed me at the end he slipped down off of me and my legs kept moving. I had to score.”
The team’s rookie of the year candidate was happy to contribute to the comeback charge to cap off the play of the game.
“It’s what I have to do. Everyone else who is put in that situation has got to make that play and it was my turn,” said the MVP of the 2010 Golden Bears.
A few minutes later, Lynch dropped the ball within striking distance of the try line after Sean LeLacheur, Preston Petrovitch and Graham Noren combined to push the firsts towards another score.
In the 71st minute, and the Clan looking like a defeated squad, a determined Kyle Gilmour dived over the try line for a score under the posts. His short but powerful run was set up by lineout ball won by the leaping LeLacheur. Robinson’s conversion sealed the deal as St. Albert knocked off the Clan for the second year in a row in the playoffs.
“It’s a special win. They’re a pretty fierce rival,” Robinson said. “We’re always one of the top teams in this province and this win just proves that again.”
The hard-fought tussle ended with a spectacular defensive play by Lynch. The team MVP in 2010 stripped the ball away from a Clan player on the verge of scoring, then kicked it for touch near midfield.
Lynch had another brilliant game booting the ball for distance. He also opened the scoring with a try under the posts in the ninth minute to finish off a slick passing play involving Robinson and Adam Bontus.
The Clan replied with a try in the 18th minute after crossing the 22 for the first time in the match. Ten minutes later, the Clan scored with a quick run through several tacklers and the conversion put them up 12-7.
“We came out pretty intense. We got that try right off the bat. It was going pretty well and then we kind of strayed away from the game plan a bit. We were a bit lackadaisical on defence. We were posting up [on defence]but we weren’t really spreading out the line. We kind of got bunched up and they took advantage by scoring those two tries,” said Robinson, who will not play in the final because of travel commitments to New Zealand to check out the Rugby World Cup.
In the second half the Clan spent so much time defending their try line they needed a GPS navigation device to find St. Albert’s side of the field.
“We’ve been talking about being an 80-minute team all year and we knew if we could keep pressuring them for the first half we could start turning the ball over our way in the second half,” Jarvis said. “We’re also fitter than most of the teams that we’ve played this year and that really showed today. We took it to them in the second half.”
Jarvis is one of several newcomers who have made an impact with the firsts in their bid to repeat as provincial champions.
“We knew that we were expected to go pretty far and we’ve had the confidence to do it,” said the former Beaumont Bandits star in high school football.