Beating up the Red Deer Titans by 59 points wasn’t good enough for the 2008 provincial finalists.
After the men’s first division rugby team humiliated the Titans in their home opener Saturday, St. Albert field general Chal Smyth barely cracked a smile in the post-game huddle while delivering a sobering message to his players. He stressed they must raise their level of play if they want to knock off the Calgary Saints in the upcoming rematch of last year’s final.
Kyle Gilmour agreed with his coach’s assessment.
“We do have a lot of stuff to work on before we play the Saints,” the standout flanker told the Gazette after the firsts won their third game in a row to kick off the Alberta Cup fixtures. “This wasn’t our best rugby today but I guess it was good enough to beat these guys.”
The firsts cranked out nine tries against a Red Deer squad that would have difficulty defeating either one of St. Albert’s two third division teams.
“Even though we scored a lot of points, we should’ve been tackling better,” said Nick Dragich, a strapping six-foot-two and 260-pound prop who inflicted pain on the Titans in the shutout victory.
The firsts will have to play a flawless game if they want avenge last year’s 24-10 loss to the Saints. Kickoff is 3:30 p.m. this Saturday at Calgary Rugby Park.
“It’s the biggest game of the year,” captain Graham Noren told his teammates before they headed to the showers. “We have to work harder. It’s not going to get any easier for us.”
St. Albert’s unprecedented journey from second division provincial champions in 2007 to pennant winners and provincial silver medallists the next year has made the firsts a team to fear.
“We’re not going to surprise any teams this year. Everybody is kind of expecting us to be good again. We’ve got a target on our back to keep winning games,” Gilmour said.
A 25-all stalemate against the Saints in league play was the closest St. Albert came to taming the holy men of rugby last year.
“Everybody who was here last year wants to get back at those guys. We feel we can do it, we just have to have our best showing,” Gilmour said. “We’ve been working out hard over the offseason and doing our Sunday training through the winter has really helped. We hope we can turn all that hard work into a provincial championship and it starts against the Saints.”
Going into Red Deer the firsts were coming off a tight 20-18 victory over the Clansmen. A late try by winger Matt Herod, a newcomer from Ontario, snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.
“It definitely was a wakeup call,” Gilmour said. “We came out really strong and we did what we wanted to do, but then we got a little bit too confident. We went away from our game plan but luckily we were able to pull through.”
The Red Deer tilt was a done deal at halftime with St. Albert ahead by 26 points. Byron Elliott and Brett Kelly bullied their way into the try area for two scores apiece. Callum Wilson, Adam Bontus, English import Karim Lynch, Gilmour and veteran David Owen also ran in scores. Owen also converted seven tries in his first game back with the firsts. The Welsh Bullet missed the previous two matches while contemplating retirement.
Not dressed Saturday was fullback Aaron Takel, a highly touted recruit who was handpicked to take over the kicking duties from both Owen and Ashley Hanson, a veteran fly-half who called it quits after last year. A bum knee put Takel on the sideline. He is listed as questionable for game in Calgary.
“We definitely counted lots in the kicking game today,” Dragich said. “We also rucked well and kept them in their end quite a bit.”
After a year away from the pitch, Dragich’s return gives the firsts another physical force at forward. Towards the end of the game in Red Deer, the former U21 national team member unceremoniously upended the Titans’ ball carrier with a thunderous takedown near the St. Albert 22-metre line. The player needed assistance coming off the field with an apparent chest injury and on the sideline had harsh words with St. Albert supporters over Dragich’s rough play. The rest of the Titans were also howling for a sin-bin card, but the referee only issued a warning to a sheepish-looking Dragich. “The tackle was clean. I didn’t dump him on his head. I dumped him on his shoulder,” he said.
The high school product of the Paul Kane Blues is excited about the team’s championship potential after coming so close last year. “The team looks pretty sharp. We have a big strong pack. We should do pretty well,” he said.
One of the better players against Red Deer was Gilmour, the recipient of the 2008 most valuable player award on arguably the most talented team ever assembled at the St. Albert Rugby Football, Club.
“It’s quite an honour. There were a lot of really good players on that team. A couple of guys played for the Canada national team,” said Gilmour, 21, a high school star with the St. Albert Skyhawks with U20 national team experience. “It’s a nice thing for sure but I’m not satisfied with just that. I’ve been working and I’m going to keep working and hopefully we’ll get a provincial championship.”