Two losses to kick off the premier men’s rugby season were two too many for the Labatt’s Cup provincial champions.
Not only did the disappointing results drop the St. Albert Rugby Football Club toward the bottom of the Alberta Cup table, it made the new playoff qualification format for north and south teams even more challenging with the top three in their respective divisions advancing into the interlock fixtures to determine the Sept. 28 provincial finalists.
Every match is now a must-win for the first 15 at SARFC and the lads took it to heart by clobbering the Clan 62-13 in Saturday’s home opener.
How big was the victory? “Super important,” replied eight-man Orrin Farries, the man of the match with three tries. “Three losses in a row would’ve been too big of a hill to climb.”
The firsts were feeling the heat entering the third of seven matches in the north fixtures.
“There was pressure on us to win today, but we handled the pressure very well,” said Irish import Brian Fitzpatrick, who made his SARFC debut in the 32-29 loss to the LA Crude the previous weekend in Leduc. “I didn’t think we were up for it and with our first home game we wanted to be up for it and do it for the fans as well.
“It was tough coming off a loss like that, but it was a good win this week.”
Heading into Leduc, the firsts had never fully recovered from the heart-breaking 20-18 outcome against the Lep/Tigers (1-1, one bonus point) as the season lid-lifter was decided on a blocked kick in the try area for the tying points with SARFC short one player because of a sin-bin infraction and the subsequent conversion kick ended the affair with the LTs celebrating like cup champions.
The Crude (2-1, two BP), last year’s provincial division two winners who moved up into the premier ranks, was another head-scratcher for SARFC players and supporters to figure out what went wrong.
“Coming off of two losses to teams like that, they played well, but we just weren’t playing our team identity,” Farries said. “This week we refocused in practice. We kind of got back to the basics and then on the pitch we actually did those basics so it just came down to execution and trust in the guys we have on the pitch as well as getting the balls to the backs early.”
As for the two losses, “Because they’re so early in the season I don’t think either one you could say is worse, it’s just the fact that those are games we didn’t play scoring rugby and that’s who we’ve been through all of our championships,” said Farries of the four Labatt’s Cups in the last five years and five since 2010. “We’re a team that puts like 30 points on the board a night and we scored 18 and 29, respectively. We just didn’t score enough so it doesn’t matter how good we played defence if we don’t score enough.”
The firsts (1-2, four BP) carved up the Clan for nine tries and should have had two more if not for a couple of dazzling dashes by Duncan Maguire in the first half that ended with circus-like passes by SARFC’s fastest player within scoring range of the try line that wound up in the Clan’s possession.
“Today we really showed that we can score in a bunch of different ways. We can score off scrums. We can score off lineouts. We have tremendous backs so as soon as we opened them up as a threat the defence has to respect them and then the forwards are allowed to rumble some more,” said Farries of the match that was done like dinner at halftime with SARFC in command 28-3. “When you have tenured guys like Andrew Tiedemann (38 caps with Canada who played in the 2011 and 2015 Rugby World Cups) in the pack it’s really easy to have that front foot forward and you just follow their lead.
“And (forward) Jordan Roberts, a Wolf Pack standout (and 2018 Edmonton Rugby Union and Rugby Alberta senior men’s player of the year), he’s just as good. He’s not a super vocal leader, but he shuts his mouth and puts in the work and its shows on the field in how he lifts the level of play of the players around him.”
Farries, 24, was a man on a mission against the Clan traversing the pitch with galloping strides and if he hadn’t gifted scrumhalf Elliott Fisher, a British import, with the last try of the mach, it would have been four scores for the Red Deer product who was voted the 2012 senior male athlete of the year at Hunting Hills High School.
The first try for Farries was the play of the game as a Fitzpatrick’s kick down field resulted in an opportunistic bounce for himself to pluck out of the air to make it 10-3 in the 16th minute.
“Brian had a wonderful kick that he sent deep into their 22 (metre area) and then their 15 (fullback), a little small tyke, he heard the pressure was coming and I had quite the gallop going so the ball came into his hands and slid right out right into the cradle and then after that it's try time,” said Farries, who’s sister, Paige, is a Team Canada player.
But as great as Farries was, it was Fitzpatrick who gave SARFC fans hope the 20-year-old can accurately kick from Ashley Hanson distance as the left-footed standoff slotted three penalty kicks in the opening 28 minutes, converted four tries and almost had another but the boot chipped paint off an upright.
“I normally play 15, but I went over to Australia two years ago and I started kicking over there and I just kick whenever I need to,” Fitzpatick said. “I break tackles and get tries. I’m not a kicker at all.”
Fitzpatrick hails from the Cashel Rugby Football Club based in County Tipperary and on the recommendations of Andy (Pinky) Kelleher and Josh Oden, former SARFC players, the third division Irishman decided to give Canadian rugby a shot.
“They just forward me to Matt (Jarvis, the senior rugby director) and I said I would come over this summer and try and get some games in,” Fitzpatrick said. ”It's very good rugby here. It's probably the same standard level as back home.”
Among the notable try scorers included Jarvis on the wing with a pair – his first scoring run was a set-up by the brilliant pass from the rampaging Angus (Gus) MacDonald in the 28th minute – and the head-first dive over the line by prop Jon Paradis three minutes into the second half was thunderous in nature.
Friday the firsts visit the Strathcona Druids (3-0, two BP) and kick off is 6:30 p.m. at Lynn Davies Rugby Park.
SCRUM BALLS: Saturday's doubleheader at SARFC started with a bang as the ERU third division men, with only 14 players, gutted out a 37-34 decision.
A sin-bin infraction to Brett Kelly in the second half didn’t stop the shorthanded SARFC squad from matching try for try with the Clan in the entertaining affair.
Byron Elliott did the most damage for SARFC with multiple tries and was easily the most dominating player.
A number of SARFC players with the thirds were in action the night before with the division two team in the 55-20 loss to the Parkland Sharks at Ellerslie Rugby Park.