Barbarians win an ugly one against Harlequins
It was no work of art, that’s for sure.
The Merritt Barbarians men’s rugby team did all their scoring in the first 20 minutes of the game, then hung on for dear life in a hard-fought, sometimes vicious 26-17 victory over the league leading Penticton Harlequins on Sunday.
After the game, Merritt player-coach Tom Wigglesworth could only resort to a few wry euphemisms to describe his team’s rather underwhelming 80-minute performance.
“We did shock and awe. We scored early and held on. It was almost a bridge too far, but we made it.”
On a lush, rain-soaked pitch at McNicholl Park in the Lakeside City, the Barbarians could not have started the match much better. Their game plan of getting the ball out to their fleet-footed backs worked to perfection, and for the second time in as many outings, the Barbs scored on their opening two possessions. First, fly-half Cameron Graham, then right-wing Mark Price rumbled into the end zone relatively uncontested. Successful converts by Graham had Merritt ahead 14-0 early, and a seemingly disorganized Harlequins’ squad reeling.
The Barbarians added to their lead only a matter of minutes later as outside-centre Cody Kightley (in his first game of the season) and fullback Eric Schmidt (on a skilful kick-and-run down the sideline) also scored tries and Graham booted yet another pair of extra points.
Just when the Barbarians appeared to be headed to their third consecutive rout (they won their two previous games 52-19 and 52-0), the match turned – slowly but decisively. A prideful Penticton side regrouped, moved the game inside, and made it a nasty battle for the ball between a pair of bruising forward packs.
The Harlequins managed to score twice and convert once in the latter part of the first half to close the gap on the scoreboard to 26-12 at the break. Both Penticton tries were the result of dominance in the scrums and rucks, and extended periods of possession time that simply wore the smaller Barbarian ranks down.
First half injuries to line-out jumper Simon Carroll, prop Brandon Coldwell, lock Riley Clark, scrum half Adam Ware and Graham slowed the pace of Merritt’s game substantially, and a rejuvenated Penticton side really took it to the Barbarians for the entire second 40-minute period.
Not helping matters was a series of uncharacteristic mental mistakes and ball-handling miscues by Merritt players that repeatedly gave possession back to the opposition and kept play in the Barbarians’ end of the field.
To their credit, a battered and bruised Merritt squad bent – giving up another try midway through the second half – but did not break despite a relentless offensive push by the Harlequins. The ball rarely found its way to either teams’ back line as it became a ‘war in the trenches’ for the final 25 minutes of the game. Forwards Zach Wright, Ryan Reid, Stuart Woodman, Wigglesworth and Clark put in yeomans’ work to hold back the Pen surge and ultimately preserve the Merritt victory.
“It was a very physical affair,” understated Reid, “with emotions running high on both sides and lots of allegations of foul play.”
With the win on Sunday, the Barbarians (4-3) have guaranteed themselves a top-two finish in the Okanagan Division III rugby league standings, and a spot in the championship game against the Harlequins (5-2).
Merritt has one more regular season game left before their rematch with Penticton, at home against the Kelowna Crows on the July 7-8 weekend.