Sherwood Park – A preview of the Ken Ann Cup north final set the stage for the provincial qualifier between the St. Albert Rugby Football Club and Strathcona Druids.
Saturday’s showcase match, which also finalized the third and fourth teams in round two of the Alberta Cup premier men’s table before the playoffs, ended in the 28-28 stalemate at Lynn Davies Rugby Park.
“That was a really good training run for us as a group,” head coach Jeremy Kyne told the SARFC players.
The teams will line up again next Saturday at 4:45 p.m. at Ellerslie Rugby Park and the Ken Ann Cup winner plays the Calgary Rams or Calgary Canucks in the Labatt’s Cup final Sept. 28 at 5 p.m. at Ellerslie.
“The Druids are going to be sharp and ready to go in a couple of weeks and we’re going to be the same way. It’s going to be a fun game,” said David Emmerzael, a lock at forward and man of the match for the Great Firsts. “It was good to see what we’re getting into. They had the exact same mentality as us today. They came out here to feel out what we’re doing just like we did.”
SARFC and the Druids will field revamped first 15 lineups after resting players for a variety of reasons in the playoff tuneup while provided their reserves with ample field time.
“I really enjoyed the fact that we got in some of the guys that don’t always play and it actually worked out really comfortably. There was a lot of good efforts. It was great, great hustle,” Emmerzael said. “I was actually very happy with the outcome even though it was a tie.”
Colin Sheridan, player/coach of the Druids, also viewed the outcome as a positive.
“We’ve had a lot of guys come out to training every week and playing seconds (division two) games and we wanted to give everyone a shot at the first team, especially in the last game of the league season,” said Sheridan, a standoff who filled in at scrumhalf against SARFC. “Obviously, going into the playoffs we’ll be a lot stronger just like St. Albert. We’ll have some guys coming back from injuries and today really showed the kind of depth we have. It really goes to show the youth structure that we’ve put in place the last couple of years is really working because we had a lot of U19, U21 guys in that lineup and to go up against a good St. Albert side and get a tie out of it is pretty good for us.”
The kiss your sister result left both teams with 2-2-1 records and the difference between the Druids (186 PF/125 PA) and SARFC (151 PF/198 PF) in the round two table was two more bonus points for the Sherwood Park-based club.
This year’s revamped Alberta Cup format featured 12 teams in round one of north and south pool play to determine the three north and three south teams for round two of the interlock fixtures.
With two south and two north teams finishing top four, they will compete for their respective Calgary and Edmonton rugby union city championships as in previous years for the north against south Labatt’s Cup instead of the first versus fourth and second versus third provincial qualifiers.
“We need two more good results,” Kyne said of SARFC repeating as provincial champions.
In round one, the 6-1 Druids (242 PF/128 PA) lost 22-19 to 5-2 SARFC (237 PF/153PA) after leading by 14 points with two opponents in the sin-bin at the same time in the second half of the June 14 match at Sherwood Park.
A penalty kick by Brian Fitzpatrick with 10 minutes remaining snapped a 19-point deadlock as the Druids suffered their first loss after three wins and SARFC improved to 2-2 after dropping two straight.
“We hit the ground running this year which is actually strange for us. We usually come out pretty slow, but this year we won our first couple of games to get a bit of momentum and then the second half of the season we started a little slowly (but) it’s been a really positive season. Even the games we’re losing they’re quite narrow games,” said Sherdian, noting the first 15 Druids for the Ken Ann Cup “will be something similar potentially” as the lineup in the first encounter against SARFC.
“We had some guys surprise and younger guys coming though for us, but we don’t have any names on jerseys yet,” Sheridan said. "We’re waiting to hear back about a few injuries. We have a bit of an injury crisis in the forward pack at the moment.”
SARFC is looking to duplicate last year’s outstanding performance in the snow in the north semifinal as the Ryan Ackerman-led forwards bludgeoned the Druids 34-12 a week after Cameron Hall’s penalty kick on the last play in the regular-season finale pushed the visitors past the SARFC hosts 35-32.
SARFC will once again rely heavily on the forwards making the pretty boys in the backs look golden as they did in last year’s playoff run, culminating in the 42-26 throttling of the Rams in Calgary for the fifth Labatt’s Cup triumph since 2010 and the first since the 2014-16 three-peat after failing to advance to the Ken Ann Cup final in 2017.
“One hundred per cent we’re trying to recapture that. We know we’re strong in the pack. We really have a lot of muscle in there. I don't think we can be stopped if we are all firing on all six cylinders,” Emmerzael said.
Sheridan chalked up the playoff loss as a lesson learned the hard way.
“We knew the snow didn’t suit us. It was a one in a million kind of game. The St. Albert forwards really showed our younger team a lesson and the week before obviously in the sun we showed what we can do when we spread the ball wide with some of our pace and skill outside,” said the fifth-year Druid from Ireland.
Last year’s Ken Ann Cup victory, 29-7 in the snow over the defending Labatt's Cupl champion Nor’Westers, was the ninth in 10 provincial north qualifiers in 11 years for SARFC.
“We know it's St. Albert every year (in the final) and even when they don’t win they’re always competing. It’s always a great side,” Sheridan said. “To beat St. Albert you always need to have a good set piece, a good scrum. Gus (Angus MacDonald), Ackerman, (Robert) Blunden, whoever is playing in the front row for them, they’ve got a great scrum so we’ve got to be on top of our game for that. We'll probably put a lot of effort and time into our scrumming performance and other than that we have to play to our strengths and don’t worry too much about the opposition. We’ve just got to worry about ourselves. We have a strong team and we’ve had a good season, and as long as we are on top of our game I feel we can beat anyone on the day.”
In the last match before the playoffs, Matt Jarvis continued his torrid scoring spree with a minimum of one try in 10 out of the team’s 12 matches by running in a pair in the opening 13 minutes and Adam Bontus converted both of them while filling in as the kicker for the injured Fitzpatrick (lower body). Joe Casella (upper body), who can also boot the ball, also sat out the contest.
Bontus, a bruiser in the centres, also converted Emmerzael’s straight-as-an-arrow piercing dash into the try area in the 35th minute to make it 21-7.
“It was a good confidence builder to score like that, especially going into playoffs. I like carrying the ball and sometimes I don’t always get the chance and now I feel I can do it again,” said Emmerzael, who made a huge impact coming off the bench in the playoffs to give the SARFC forwards additional offensive punch. “It really feels like we share the victory every time we score. When we push it in I love it. It’s not one guy when it’s the forwards pushing forward like that.”
It was 14-7 when SARFC squandered an easy try as the explosive Duncan Maguire got greedy with his try under the post attempt instead of touching the ball down in the corner of the try area and was unsuccessful in his ill-fated endeavour. Maguire didn’t see the pitch in the second half.
In the 64th minute and SARFC up 21-14, Lawrence Ross barrelled over the try line after Emmerzael gobbled up substantial yardage following a SARFC lineout ball.
Matt Herod, who was sharp at scrumhalf throughout the match, kicked the conversion with Bontus resting on the bench in the second half.
The Druids closed it out with two converted tries and the game-tying points were scored with less than five minutes remaining.
“It was good effort today, we just have a couple of things we've got to fix up. Our shape is looking good, but timing is a little bit off so we're really going to focus on that. We're basically there, we've just to wait little bit longer and kind of be patient with it,” said Emmerzael, 31.
The super-sized rugger was introduced to the sport of kings about five years ago by the recently retired Jake Robinson, who is putting out fires as a fireman instead of starting them on the pitch as the Brad Marchand of scrumhalfs, and the rock-solid forward has embraced it with a tight grip.
“He told me I should try it and I just loved it. I was hooked after the first practice. I’m sad I never played in high school (at Eastglen). I think I missed out on something.”