Premier men fall flat to Nor’Westers

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Nor’Westers Field – It’s back to the drawing board for the premier men’s rugby team.

The third consecutive loss to the Nor’Westers was Thursday’s 46-17 thrashing by the reigning Labatt’s Cup provincial champions against the St. Albert Rugby Football Club.

The lopsided result was on par with last year’s 57-26 and 51-3 drubbings during a two-week span in the Alberta Cup fixtures.

“It’s pretty disappointing, for sure. It’s tough,” said Jake Robinson a superlative scrumhalf with a glum look splashed across his battle-scared face. “They’re an excellent team and lots of credit to them. We’ve just got to come out the next time we play them at home and come for a full 80 (minutes).”

The rematch is Aug. 11 at 4 p.m. at SARFC.

The home team will be without the services of Duncan Maguire, a prolific back who suffered a separated shoulder against the Nor’Westers and is sidelined for five weeks.

Despite the stretch of overwhelming victories, the Nor’Westers (5-1) refused to take SARFC (4-3) for granted.

“Every time we play these guys it’s as if we’re the underdog,” said Liam O’Hallahan, a dynamite runner at the fullback or wing position. “We’ve always had a bad taste in our mouths with St. Albert after losing to them two years ago in the (Ken Ann Cup) city final so we’re never going to underestimate them, which is good because they’re a team that if you do go in to it half-heartedly they will make you pay. It doesn’t matter what kind of squad they put up, it’s just the mentality of St. Albert.”

SARFC started with a bang with a ferocious push against the back-peddling Nor’Westers, culminating with key plays by Chad Monai-Brophy and Robinson before Byron Elliott drove the ball while carrying J.W. Frater of the Nor’Westers on his back for the score in the sixth minute.

The Nor’Westers replied five minutes later as Kyle Faloon, a fleet-footed standoff, sidestepped a tackle in tight of the touchline past the 22-metre line that was close to being out of bounds while en route to the try area.

The try was the first of five in the opening half, including three during a nine-minute sequence of unrelenting pressure as the Nor’Westers pulled ahead 19-5 in the 19th minute.

“The momentum kind of kept snowballing from there,” Robinson said. “A couple of bad mistakes and then the weight kind of sat on our shoulders there and we really never got back into it.”

After the third try by the Nor’Westers, head coach Jeremy Kyne loudly voiced his displeasure while standing in the try area as the SARFC players stood shell-shocked waiting for the conversion attempt by Faloon.

SARFC regrouped with renewed vigour but shot themselves in the foot a couple of times with miscues in tight of the try line while trailing by 14 points.

Frustration slowly seeped into the SARFC squad as Robinson was cautioned by the referee to behave himself and two minutes later Jordan Tait, the team’s best player this season while splitting time at fullback, standoff and scrumhalf, was sentenced to the sin-bin over a dirty deed 17 minutes before the break.

The first half ended with the Nor’Westers in charge at 33-5.

“We came out and it seemed like things were going to go our way for the first five, 10 minutes, kind of a lot of front foot,” Robinson said. “We came out playing to our phases, which is what we want to do, and then we kind of got away from it. We started trying doing too much individual stuff, looking for that extra offload instead of just rolling and setting up the next phase. We were trying to score in one or two phases instead of sticking to our game plan and getting 10 phases in and putting the ball down (for tries).”

SARFC struggled mightily against the fast-paced Nor’Westers, especially in the forwards as the home team flew into the rucks like lightning quickness.

“Defensively we didn’t show up,” Robinson said. “We didn’t come up in the line, especially on that short side. We didn’t come up and they got inside on us a couple of times blind and that let us down.”

Both teams emptied their benches in the second half with the outcome a done deal.

SARFC’s second try was a spirited forward initiative within striking distance of the try area. Robinson was the main distributor of the ball as SARFC inched its way in for the score four minutes into the second half.

As the match grinded to a close, push came to shove between a number of players, with Robinson, Tait and Robert Blunden expressing their displeasure with some of the Nor’Westers.

Robinson, 30, teamed up with Tait, who was slotted in at standoff, to score the last try for SARFC. Tait’s conversion made it 33-17.

The Nor’Westers tied the bow on the proceedings with two tries and a penalty kick in the last 16 minutes.

“On the offensive side end we played as hard as we usually go. We just spin it wide and keep our options open,” said O’Hallahan, who got a hand on the ball while diving into the try area to complete a lengthy run on a kick-and-chase play for the last try. “We’re definitely a momentum team. We’ve got enough skilled guys for 50/50 balls to go our way when we are confident. A lot of teams don’t have that ability so if there is a pop pass or support run we’re usually going to score tries off that and that’s where a lot of our offence comes is our second chance plays. We’ve got a lot of team chemistry so we keep our options open all the time.”

O’Hallahan, 22, noted the Nor’Westers, “kind of lacked defensively” while limiting SARFC to three tries.

“They’re a similar club to us, they like to play wide and fast, too, so if we’re not going to play D to match our offence it’s going to be closer to low scores more often,” said the 2017 Edmonton Rugby Union senior men’s player of the year after Robinson was the previous year’s MVP recipient.

“It was a fantastic honour,” said O’Hallahan, who suffered a broken hand early in the season with the Prairie Wolf Pack but recovered in time to play a prominent role in the two blowouts against SARFC. “It was pretty nice to get recognized for the games I did get the chances to play in.”

The Nor’Westers are now the official club and a half of premier men’s rugby as the first provincial champions other than SARFC or Calgary Hornets since the 2008 Calgary Saints while going 13-2 in 2017.

“We’ve always been that club that should’ve, could’ve, would’ve but last year we got the job done,” said O’Hallahan, a third-year Nor’Wester who hails from New Zealand and has dual Canadian citizenship. “This year we haven’t slid under the radar like we have in the years before. Clubs are taking us seriously because we’re the club to beat. We know that we’re the ones that everyone wants to knock off of the top so we’re just going to keep playing our game.

“We’re also a very humble group. We never go into a game with a feeling that it’s a gimme by any chance.”

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Jeff Hansen

Jeff Hansen joined the St. Albert Gazette in 1991. He writes about sports, athletes and teams from St. Albert and area.