In the early afternoon hours of Oct. 21, the piercing scream of a whistle sliced through the chilly autumn air at Riverside Park in Cambridge. To the 15 sweat-soaked young men on the east side of the field it was the sound of opportunity squandered; to those on the west side it was the sweet sound of music.
In a match littered with penalties and turnovers, Conestoga’s varsity men’s rugby squad was the more consistent of two inconsistent teams and held on by the skin of their talons to defeat Georgian College 19-13.
“It was a little sloppy,” Condors head coach Kyle O’Neill admitted after the game, “but we got the win.”
Bittersweet as it may have tasted, the victory had a note of redemption for the Condors, who blew a lead against the Grizzlies earlier this season.
On Sept. 23, Conestoga was leading 10-3 at the half only to allow Georgian to tie the game with less than five minutes remaining.
Like the Western Division rivals’ first meeting, the rematch was a hard-fought defensive battle. Neither team was able to move the ball much beyond mid-field until the Condors opened the scoring with a try in the 13th minute.
Georgian responded nine minutes later with a try of their own and the teams went back to slugging it out in the trenches. Conestoga scored again minutes before halftime and took a 12-8 lead into the break.
The Grizzlies cut the lead to 12-11 early in the second half and dominated the scrums until Conestoga’s Greg Dawkins broke free and crossed the goal line in the 65th minute.
Over the course of the final 15 minutes, Georgian advanced the ball deep into Conestoga territory several times. Unlike the earlier meeting, however, the Condors’ defence was able to keep them out of the end zone.
Before the game, Conestoga captain Shane Rafferty said finishing strong has been the team’s Achilles heel all season.
“If there’s one thing I could say about our play, it’s that we need to close games out. Too many times this season we’ve taken that momentary sigh of relief when we have the lead.”
“We let them back in the game last time,” O’Neill said. “Today was a true test of how we’ve progressed through the season so far.”
According to O’Neill, who began assisting with the sideline duties last season and took over as head coach this year, the team’s defence was a big reason for the win in the rematch.
“Our defence was great today,” O’Neill said. “We were trapped deep in our own end how many times? And we were able to drive them back each time.”
O’Neill said James Halyk, who played outside centre, was also instrumental in the team’s win.
“He’s more of a quiet leader,” O’Neill said of the former Georgian Grizzly. “He won’t be a guy to get up and yell at everyone, but he’ll make the big hit or the big run at the right time.”
The win, their second in a row after a lopsided 109-0 loss to league-leading Humber, revived Conestoga’s hopes of finishing second in their division. A win against Mohawk next week will not only vault them ahead of Georgian in the standings, but also secure them a home playoff game in November.
While the Condors defeated the winless Mountaineers earlier this season, Rafferty said they can’t take their final opponent of the regular season for granted.
“The game against Mohawk is the only thing we’re thinking about,” Rafferty said. “Teams make the mistake looking past a team and we can’t afford to do that.”
“We’re in the driver’s seat,” O’Neill added. “It’s up to us to finish this season strong and go into the playoffs on a high.”