Ontario Blues survived a late scare to defeat The Rock 21-19 in the final game of the Canadian Rugby Championship season.
Blues, who clinched the CRC title last weekend, were behind at half-time but hit back in the early stages of the second-half to get a seven point lead that proved to be just enough of a cushion for the late fight-back by the visitors. Rock fly-half Dean Blanks captured the CRC scoring title but missed a last-minute conversion chance that would have tied the scores.
There was a good turn-out for the new CRC champions at Burlington, Ontario and the thermometer lingered near the 30 degree mark for the entire contest. The Rock, eager to end their season with a win to take second place, started strongly. Long range punts from Blanks and Morgan Lovell had Blues wing Rory Tomlinson under pressure and he twice spilled the ball forward to concede scrums. Blanks converted an early penalty to make it 3-0 and doubled the lead after 10 minutes when the Blues were guilty of not rolling away in the tackle.
Rock were encouraged by the scoring start and even more so when Zac Coughlan and Jason Picco made great breaks through the home sies defences. Their forwards rumbled over the line on the right-hand wing but the ball was held up and the Blues spun the resulting five-metre scrum to eventually clear. An attacking line-out on the halfway proved to be a good platform for the first serious Blues forray into Rock territory and they were rewarded when Lovell held onto the ball in the tackle to give up a penalty chance. Steve Piatek was successful with a 35 metre strike at the posts to make it 6-3 after 15 minutes.
Tomas Dolezel and Brett Beukeboom were next up to make positive contributions for the home side and another penalty was forced. Piatek missed wide right with his kick and the Blues then had to rely on their defence to keep the difference at just three points. The Rock had several chances to score a try as they were camped on the Blues' line for almost 10 minutes. Just when it looked like they were going to come away from an impressive phase empty handed, Ontario conceded a penalty. Blanks job looked relatively simple but he rushed his kick and the score stayed 6-3. Sighs of relief from the home fans were soon turned to groans as Rock's Jon Phelan stole a line-out ball. Phelan and his teammates were held up on the line again but made their five metre scrum count the second time around as Coughlan spun around the blind-side and crashed over in the corner. The conversion was missed at the scoreboard read 11-3 with four minutes left in the half.
There was time left in the half, however, for veteran Rock forward Rod Snow to show there was still some gas left in the tank with a bulldozing run up the left wing, followed by a flicked pass successfully offloaded in the tackle. With seconds remaining in the opening 40, The Rock snuffed out a dangerous Blues attack. Rather than kick to touch, Rock's Rob Turk, on for the injured Picco, tried to run the ball out of his own 22. He coughed up the ball in the tackle and Craig Marshall picked it up, flirted with the touchline out wide, and dove over in the corner. If the try was impressive, Piatek's excellent conversion was even better. 11-10 at half-time.
The Rock more than deserved the lead at the break and would have been frustrated not to be further out of sight. They pushed on early in the second half and were rewarded when Blanks notched his third penalty of the day. The three points were almost immediately gifted back as they did not roll away in the tackle inside their own half. Piatek's penalty made it 14-13 and the Blues' started to really come into the contest. Their scrum was very solid and they patiently went through the phases to gradually wear down the visitors. Steady build-up paid off when Piatek burst through a gap from 22 to head towards the line. He drew in the last defender and slipped in Dan West who provided a strong supporting run and touched down. Piatek could not follow his assist up with a conversion and the score sat at 18-14 as play from both sides became sloppy. Blanks missed two more penalty kicks and Piatek returned the favour by missing one for his team.
Rock were solid in defence but could not recreate any of the momentum from the first half. Their frustrations were compounded with about 10 minutes remaining as they infringed again to give up another penalty. Piatek slotted it over from 32 metres out and last year's CRC champions knew that they had to go for tries rather than kicked scores. They had more chances to claw their way back but on two occasions turned the ball over only yards from the Blues' line. Kyle Baillie and Kevin Parfrey made darts for the line and there was a late chance when play was called back to within 5 metres of the home side's line after a long advantage was played out. Morgan Lovell took the quick tap and the ball was fed to the hurtling Chris Burt to dive over in the corner. Blanks was afforded the chance to level things up at the death but just missed. The final whistle blew and cheers went up around Sherwood Forest Park.
Rock were gracious in defeat as they formed a guard of honour and shook hands with their victorious opponents. CRC President Gordon Sneddon was joined by Les Gilson and Monty Heald for the presentation of the Mactier Cup to Blues captain Dan Pletch. There was a boisterous reception for the 2011 champions and the cup was bounced up and down in the midst of a huddle by an outstanding Ontario Blues team.
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