The Rock have secured a home berth in the inaugural Canadian Rugby Championship final after defeating the Prairie Wolf Pack 27-23 in the dying minutes of their clash in St. John’s on Saturday.
True to the expectations of a game featuring the two undefeated teams in the CRC, The Rock and the Wolf Pack fought beyond the 80th minute to keep their records in tact.
But something had to give at Swilers Rugby Complex and it was a defensive slip up by the Wolf Pack that presented The Rock the opportunity to win.
Following the game, Rock manager Rick Graham said it had drained him both mentally and emotionally as he watched the top two teams in the competition vie for the all important home-ground advantage.
“It was a back-and-forth game,” Graham said. “That was a very, very good team we played. They were better than the Division 1 teams we were playing in the U.K. in the pre season.
“It was a very physical game, extremely physical. We have two weeks to prepare (for the final), but we’ll be ready.”
In front of 1,500 rowdy fans, the Rock and the Wolf Pack traded early tries for an even score of 5-5 in the first 10 minutes. The tries were scored by The Rock’s Rob Wilson and the Pack’s Luke Cudmore.
The Rock followed this up with a try by Jeff Warden, who was put into space after some strong phase play created an overlap.
The home team had a chance to extend their lead with a massive counter attack from their own end of the field when Ben Trevorrow fielded a kick and sent it to fellow winger Robert Wilson.
Wilson made a 40-metre dash, breaking four tackles before going to ground. The Rock phased once before spreading the ball to the right, where it eventually found prop Rod Snow on the wing, but the big man knocked it on.
It was then the Wolf Pack’s turn to tally again and the return of fly half Stephen Woodward reaped immediate rewards as he slotted two penalty kicks to give his side an 11-10 lead at half time.
The second half saw the teams trade blows again with The Rock’s Tyler Wish scoring and the Wolf Pack’s Dustin Macpherson and Ian Shoults scoring from their team’s sound set piece.
The Pack led 23-22 with three minutes left in the game, but The Rock received a five-metre attacking scrum in the visitor’s end and Number 8 Ken Goodland picked from the base of the scrum, ran blind side and touched the ball down in the corner.
Pack coach Mike Shelley said his team’s errors cost them the game, but that he was confident they could match them when they meet again.
“In the end, it came down to the error count and unfortunately we were a bit higher,” Shelley said. “We’d obviously rather play (the final) in Calgary, but we lost a lot of ball in the contact.
“We’re pretty evenly matched teams. Both teams did their homework and cancelled each other out.”
The Rock will host the Wolf Pack in the CRC championship game at Swilers Rugby Complex in St. John’s on September 18.
Also on Saturday, at the Burlington Centaurs Rugby Club, what started out as a very even match turned into the Ontario show in the second half as the men in blue ran away to score 35 unanswered points to defeat the B.C. Bears 55-20.
With about 1,000 in attendance and neither team wanting to finish the CRC with no wins, or the wooden spoon, the Bears and the Blues hit the pitch with intensity, evident in the cards dealt in the match.
Surely a factor in their second-half slump, Bears second row Brian Erichsen was sent from the field with a red card for stomping on Blues prop Dan Pletch with 10 minutes left in the first half.
Also in the first, Blues second row Brett Beukeboom received a yellow.
After a close first half, with the wind at their backs and a man advantage, Blues coach Les Gilson said his team had truly found its flow and played the way he had hoped they would all season.
“It was great to see that things finally came together,” Gilson said. “The boys unleashed what’s been growing inside them. The forwards put it together so we had fast ball and Ander (Monro) had time to make the decisions we were looking for.
“It would have been nicer for it to come together earlier, but it’s nice to see we achieved what we were building toward.”
The teams were locked 20-20 at half time, after the Blues scored three tries and fly half Monro kicked one conversion and one penalty and the Bears scored two tries with centre Connor Braid kicking two conversions and two penalties.
The game opened up significantly in the second half as the Blues found real fluidity between their forwards and backs and Monro continued to build in confidence.
A big factor of the Blues performance in the second half must be credited to Monro, who was a constant threat with ball in hand, offering good distribution and keeping the Bears on the back foot with his accurate infield kicks.
Monro also successfully converted all five of his team’s tries in the second half.
The Blues broke the 20-20 deadlock when replacement forward Nolan Ott fielded a 22-metre restart from the Bears and broke several tackles before offloading to Mark Macsween to score.
Shortly afterwards, Monro attempted to clear the ball from his own end and had the kick charged down, but his team regathered the ball and sent it through five sets of hands down the field before Derek Daypuck crossed the line.
Their next try saw Stu Ault cross the line in the left corner as Monro took advantage of the natural overlap created by Erichsen being sent off.
The Bears then had their first period of serious attack in the second half, driving the ball metres shy of the Blues line for about 10 phases, only to send it wide to the backs and have fly half Eric Wilson isolated and penalized for not releasing.
The Blues then closed the game with two more tries, both scored by 17-year-old bench winger Taylor Paris who benefitted from some quick thinking by his teammates and his own pace to burn.