Ellerslie Rugby Park – St. Albert’s U18 junior men did more with less as this year’s playoff finalist.
It was last man standing for the out-numbered St. Albert squad against Druids Red in Wednesday’s playoff for the Nor’Westers Cup in the Edmonton Rugby Union.
The scoresheet listed 18 St. Albert players compared to 25 for one of the two Strathcona Druids’ junior teams in the ERU fixtures.
“We’re very good at actually keeping our heads up,” said standoff Ben Manchester after the 41-27 loss.
A thin bench didn’t stop St. Albert from challenging the fortitude of Druids Red to the bitter end for a berth in the provincial final.
“We definitely played well through the sheer tiredness of it all,” Manchester said. “We just had a couple of unlucky bounces and a couple of mental breakdowns.”
The halftime score was 19-8 for Druids Red after St. Albert led 8-7 in the first quarter on Cooper Kenda’s try and Manchester’s penalty kick.
Eight minutes into the third quarter, St. Albert was awarded a penalty after Manchester made a leaping attempt to pull the ball out of the air and Druids Red anxious to reverse its field position while under siege. A quick tap and go by Manchester on the penalty caught Druids Red by surprise and he was able to crack the try line with an outstretched arm to slam the ball down while tackled from behind. His conversion kick closed the gap to four points.
The Druids replied with three tries and one conversion before quarter time to make it 36-15.
“We’ve been down like three tries before and still came out with the W so it wasn’t that bad,” said Manchester of the 21-point deficit.
Tries 10 minutes apart by Ben Miller and Drake Ottacher and one conversion by Manchester rallied St. Albert to within nine points of Druids Red.
Miller’s try was scored while a scuffle broke out near the touchline in Druids Red territory while play continued on the other side of the pitch.
The match ended with a try off a spectacular double chip and chase by a Druids Red player.
St. Albert finished 2-4 and two of the losses were 68-29 to Druids Red (5-0) and 22-21 to Druids Green (1-4).
The first win after two setbacks was 38-22 over the Nor’Westers (2-3).
“I would definitely say winning against the Nor’Westers was our turning point. That was our first real success of the year,” Manchester said.
The semifinal against the Clan (3-2) was a doozey as St. Albert gutted it out despite a shortage of players to score the winning points on basically the last play of the match from short distance of the try line.
“That was a nail bitter,” Manchester said of the 39-36 decision against the same team that beat St. Albert 50-22 in the season opener. “Even in (tight situations) we can come back and come out with the win.”
The St. Albert roster for the final included a pair of gold medallists with the Alberta Wolf Pack at the Canadian Rugby Championships last week in Calgary: Kyle Dolph in U18 and Colten Brenneis in U16.
Miller, a forward, and Manchester have also made their Alberta Cup premier debuts with the fantastic firsts and Miller, who is entering Grade 12, is a key contributor to the terrific thirds’ playoff run in the ERU. Both players are high school rugby products of the Bellerose Bulldogs.
“Premier is quite good. Definitely it’s a lot faster pace and we kind of know what they’re doing a lot more. (In junior) we just really wing it 80 per cent of the time,” said Manchester, 18. “It’s good for confidence and definitely good for the career playing in premier.”
The third Helen Wright Cup final in three years between St. Albert and the Nor’Westers in junior women’s rugby ended with the first loss of the season for the defending champions.
St. Albert is 7-1 after the decisive 50-10 victory by the Nor’Westers (9-1) in Wednesday’s U18 final. The halftime score was 26-0.
Josie Pusch scored St. Albert’s only try on a 15-metre penalty run and crash play. Kendra Regimbald drove Push into the try area when she was held up at the line.
Mackenzie Hamm kicked the conversion and also pulled off a beautiful 17-metre drop goal.
Hamm was joined by Kiana Krueger and Shelby Pierce from the bronze-medal winning U16 Wolf Pack at nationals last week.
Payton McNeill of the U18 gold medallists played a half against the Nor’Westers despite an upper body injury suffered in the Wolf Pack’s 49-0 semifinal win against Ontario. The gold-medal match was 43-10 against the Nova Scotia Keltics.
Not available for the final was standout Alexie Pusch. The Wolf Pack captain and one of the top U18 scorers at nationals was in Hawaii at a beach rugby tournament.
Also missing was Bella Cuciz, an accurate long-range kicker who was sidelined with a knee injury.
Last year St. Albert defeated the Nor’Westers 41-22 for playoff honours and in the provincial final lost 46-27 to the Calgary Hornets to finish 6-1.
Two years ago, St. Albert and the Nor’Westers were tied at 33 apiece after regulation time and after 18 rounds of drop goals from the 22-metre line the Nor’Westers prevailed.