The terrific thirds are three wins away from a second provincial championship in three years after going from worst to first in the Edmonton Rugby Union.
The third division men’s team at the St. Albert Rugby Football Club finished on top of the table at 8-2 after downing the Strathcona Druids 42-26 in the last match before the playoffs.
It’s a remarkable turnaround under SARFC men’s head coach Sam Townsend and the team’s player/coach, Nathan Reis, after the thirds were treated like a fourth division side by the previous regime during a dismal 2-9 campaign following the first ERU Visser Cup and provincial Digby Dinnie Cup since 1997 when the thirds completed the championship sweep with a 12-3 record.
“I’m very proud of the boys,” said captain Andrew (Kiwi) Marsden after the thirds clinched first place and a bye into the Sept. 16 semifinal at SARFC instead of playing in the Sept. 9 opening round for teams ranked third to sixth.
“We get an extra week to rest so it’s money in the bank at this part of the season,” Marsden said.
The ERU final is Sept. 23 and the provincial championship is Sept. 30 and both tilts will be staged at Ellerslie Rugby Park.
“The team we played with today is pretty much it for the playoffs,” Marsden said. “The one thing we’ve done this year is we’ve played an honest group of thirds as much as we can. The guys haven’t had to double up too much with the prems (Alberta Cup team) and that’s worked out well in the back half (of the fixtures) with byes so guys can play one or the other.
“We’ve managed our roster well this year making sure that we have a good selection of guys ready for the playoffs.”
The sixth win in seven matches lifted the thirds one point above the Edson Axmen (7-2-1) for the division pennant.
“I asked for two things and we got them both so it’s a golden game in my books: win, bonus point and now we’re off to the semis,” Marsden told a bunch of happy campers in the post-game huddle.
The first loss for the thirds was 48-12 in Edson on May 27 and then a stretch of five victories in a row ended with the 46-8 setback Aug. 11 against the visiting Parkland Sharks (4-6), a side stacked with second division players.
The thirds turned the ship around against the Druids (6-4), a potential semifinal opponent, but it wasn’t easy despite posting leads of 12-7 at halftime and 32-7 after three quarters.
“They turned up with 15 players and it wasn’t until the last five minutes that we came away with a comfortable win,” said Marsden, a standoff with an accurate kicking leg who converted four tries that included a couple of difficult ball placements and booted three penalties. “A penalty kick late to put us up to nine (at 35-26 in the fourth quarter) would’ve been enough but those guys didn’t stop. We had a lot of work on our hands today.”
The Druids gave the thirds a huge scare in the last quarter with three tries and two conversions to close the gap to 32-26 with nine minutes remaining but Marsden’s penalty kick from the 22-metre line and Noah Brown’s try that was converted by Marsden closed out the win.
The first of five scores was a team try by the thirds in the fifth minute after a Byron Elliott romp down field.
In the second quarter, and the match knotted at seven apiece, the thirds regained ball possession after a Druids’ lineout at their five-metre line and Mark Button crashed into a defensive barricade in front of the try line before Jon Anderson finished off the play.
The speedy Travis Brenneis, a second-half sub in the backs, made big impact with a try under the posts and had a helping hand in Justin (Bomber) Armitt’s try, along with assistance by Jon Paradis, in the third quarter.
“All the tries today were good hard earned team tries and that is what this team is about. We’re brothers and we play for each other and today we did that,” said Marsden, 34. “I asked a lot out of the forwards today and they delivered for me at the end. These tries that we scored were mainly off our forward play. They played like a pack rather than a group of individuals.”