There may have been only five players from The Rock named to Canada’s Selects team, but there are 22 who are probably still celebrating what head coach Pat Parfrey is calling the biggest win in the brief history of Newfoundland rugby.
The Rock’s 19-8 victory over the Prairie Wolf Pack in the final of the Canadian Rugby Championship (CRC) on a cool, overcast weekend afternoon in St. John’s was more than a championship final. It was an event. That’s what happens when a domestic game gets live coast-to-coast television coverage.
For that reason alone, the game was special to the province, the players and to the sport in general.
More than 2,000 rowdy fans at Swilers Complex provided the atmosphere and The Rock produced a determined second-half effort to send everyone but the Wolf Pack home happy.
Parfrey admits there was a time he didn’t think the Newfoundland-based Rock, representing Atlantic Canada and Quebec, had much of a chance to win the league title in the CRC, which also includes traditional powerhouses Ontario and British Columbia, the two finalists last season.
“This is absolutely amazing,” said Parfrey, noting 13 players on The Rock were on the 2005 team that won Newfoundland’s first national senior championship in the Rugby Canada Super League, which included teams representing individual provinces and larger metropolitan centres.
“The weather could have been better which would have made the quality of the game better,” said the Rock mentor, “but the passion of our fans and players must have opened more than a few eyes in the rest of Canada.”
Gareth Rees, a former national team captain said the championship match was, “a typical Cup final with the hardware on the line. It wasn’t pretty because of the field conditions, but the best team won.”
Rees, who was the colour analyst on CBC’s broadcast Saturday, said the televised game, “puts rugby in the shop window. When this game is over, most of those elite players go back to their local club teams and you’ll see them coaching kids next week. That’s what rugby is all about and, hopefully, if we can get that message out to Canada, that’s a fair reflection of our game.”
Parfrey admitted The Rock played a cautious, “boring, I suppose” game in the first half.
“We deliberately kicked the ball into the corners,” he said, noting The Rock took advantage of the wind in the second half.
“The wind was a huge issue. Getting out of the first half scoreless was a victory for us,” he said. “I knew we’d do much better in the second half, so I wasn’t concerned.”
Heavy early-morning rain left patches of water on the field and some of the players had difficulty holding on to the wet ball.
In fact, the poor field conditions may have played a role in the scoreless first half.
Rock fly half Dean Blanks had a reasonable shot at opening the scoring around the 25-minute mark when his team was awarded a penalty kick for a Wolf Pack offside, but he slipped and fell on the slick surface and his attempt just dribbled a few metres.
The Rock’s Ciaran Hearn didn’t have any problems with the surface in the second half when he booted four penalty goals to pace the home side.
The Rock’s only try was scored by Geoff Warden, who jumped on a ball — which had been intentionally kicked along the ground by Blanks — and touched it down to give The Rock an 8-0 lead which seemed to supply the home team with the confidence it needed to finish off the scrappy visitors, who managed a try by Nick Blevins just before the final whistle.
Warden, from Victoria, B.C., said the play to produce The Rock’s try wasn’t an accident.
“We noticed in the first half that their defence was playing very flat and they weren’t respecting the little chip-over at all,” he said. “We tried it a few times in the first half, but we didn’t get it together until the second half.”
Five players from The Rock — Kevin Parfrey, Frank Walsh, Jon Phelan, Jebb Sinclair and Tyler Wish — were named to the Canada Selects team that will represent the country at a tournament in Argentina next month. That more weren’t taken from the league champions has rankled a few feather, but Warden said there’s always been a lack of respect for The Rock.
“It’s a nice chip to have on your shoulder when you’re playing the other guys,” he said.
Veteran Rock forward Sean O’Leary, who orchestrated his own cheer with the fans after the game while holding the MacTier Cup in one hand, said there’s no reason for anyone to doubt The Rock’s credentials.
“This isn’t the old Super League,” O’Leary said, a product of the Baymen RFC in Conception Bay South. “The best teams are playing in this and we beat them all.”
“Now everyone knows that if you come to Newfoundland, you’re not walking out with a victory.”