Going into a game against the Penticton Harlequins last Saturday, the Merritt Barbarians men's rugby team knew they controlled their own destiny with regard to making the final on July 14.
While a loss would not eliminate us from contention, we would no longer control our own destiny. We expected to be under pressure in the forwards and to have an advantage in the backs, so that our game plan reflected these assumptions.
The game ultimately played out as we had thought. Our backs were able to play an expansive style, spreading the field and moving side to side effectively. We earned the right to go wide, crashing the ball in the forwards near the fringes and setting the wide plays up with crashes at the inside center position with Jon Cooke. However, we took care not to spend too much time in forward phases and stuck to our game plan of using our possessions out wide, where we knew that we would have the advantage. We got a very good start and scored four unanswered tries in the first half (Eric Schmidt, Cam Graham, Mark Price, and Cody Kightley). Crucially, Cam Graham successfully converted three of the four tries, giving us a 27-0 lead midway through the first half.
The forwards had a good start but soon found themselves under pressure. We gave up a considerable amount of pack weight in the scrums, and it was difficult for us to win clean balls. Despite the weight disadvantage, as in most of our games this year, we held our own well enough. There were only two turnovers at scrum time, and we did manage a steal of our own. However, the forwards continued to feel the weight of the Penticton pack as the game wore on. Line outs were difficult after the departure of Merritt's best jumper, Simon Carol, due to injury. Key front rower Brandon Colwell was also forced from the game due to injury (as was scrum half and captain Adam Ware, although he returned). Because we played an expansive game, our own forwards' fitness was tested—the pack having to cover a lot of ground to secure the ball. When Penticton began to build momentum toward the end of the first half, they kept the ball in the forwards near the fringes and our pack was forced to make a lot of tackles. We expected this strategy from them and were prepared, but they executed very well, retaining possession even when we were able to put them under pressure in contact. Our lines held up for multiple phases but eventually succumbed to disorganization beyond the fifth or sixth phase. Penticton scored two tries in the latter part of the first half and another in similar fashion in the early minutes of the second half. Crucially, two of the three Penticton conversions were wide of the mark, resulting in a score of 26-17.
After the game we received the welcome news that Vernon had beaten West Kelowna, so our win clinched a spot in the final. There is still an outside shot at finishing first. If we win on July 7 at home against Kelowna Crows and Penticton loses, we will be tied for first and it would go to points for-and-against to determine the host for the final. The men of the match from our side were Cam Graham and player/coach Tom Wigglesworth.