Harlequins take McCormick Cup

By Brian Smiley, Brantford Expositor

The Brantford Harlequins capped off a 16-game winning streak with their biggest victory of the season on Saturday.

Playing Toronto Scottish in Rugby Ontario's senior men's provincial championship, the Harlequins scored a 37-17 victory at Fletcher's Fields in Markham, grabbing the team's first McCormick Cup title since winning it all in 2003.

"Given the amount of effort we put in to it, it would have been disappointing to fall anything short of winning the last game of the season," skipper Dave Neill said. "At the end of the day, I don't think anyone can argue that we were the best team."

Anyone prepared to debate the fact that Brantford doesn't belong at the top of the provincial men's heap would have a hard time winning that argument.

After losing its first two games of the season - 27-13 at home on May 14 to the Scottish and 31-25 in Aurora to the Barbarians on May 28 - the Harlequins won 12 straight games to finish at the top of the table.

In the playoffs, Brantford beat Ajax Wanderers 73-14 before downing the Bytown Blues 43-7 in the quarter-finals. The Harlequins booked their spot in the final against the Scottish, which finished second in the regular season at 11-3, by beating Oakville Crusaders 24-18 in the semifinals.

Brantford, which downed Toronto 39-15 in Markham on Aug. 6 in the regular season, felt good about its chances prior to the opening whistle on Saturday.

"I think that we were confident, which is probably the biggest difference," Neill said. "We played with the confidence and belief that we were going to be the better team on the day."

But things didn't start off well for Brantford on the scoreboard.

Playing into a huge wind in the first half, the Harlequins couldn't get much offence going and its kicking game was equalized. The plan was to stop the Scottish from scoring and although Toronto did put up an early 10 points, Brantford came back to take a 12-10 lead into the half.

"We were still able to come out with the lead and I think going into the second half and having the talent we had coming off the bench fresh, it was at that point we were able to play with a lot of confidence," Neill said.

"One of the rallying factors was playing into that wind and coming out with the lead. I don't think any of us had really played such a big game in those conditions so we knew we were already over the hump playing with the lead."

Early in the second half, Brantford's lead stood at 19-17 before things took off for the eventual champions. Two penalties and two tries later, the game was out of reach for Toronto.

"I'm sure maybe the spectators may have started making up their minds with about eight minutes to go," said Neill, whose team added a late converted try to round out the scoring.

"Having played and lost games at the end, it probably wasn't until the 77th minute that I was confident we had done enough."

Despite what looks like a lopsided final result, Neill praised his opponents.

"Full value to them," he said. "They were a tough opponent. I don't think the scoreline reflected how close the game was.

"I do feel for them. I have some friends who play for the team and that's the third final in a row they've lost. As close as we've come in the past couple of years, they've come closer."

When the final whistle sounded, it was the Harlequins and their fans celebrating.

"It felt more like a home game than anything," said Neill after the team played in front of what was estimated to be 150 supporters. "We had a really strong contingent of family, friends and club alumni. A lot of guys from other teams came out and supported us as Harlequins fans for the day."

Although Neill went with a strong starting 15, he has mentioned before that throughout the season many players who didn't make the final roster of 23 in the championship helped contribute to the successful season. In the game against the Scottish, the Harlequins used all the players they dressed to gain the win.

"At the end of the day, we ended up using all eight subs and a guy that wasn't supposed to dress ended up getting on the team sheet because one of our guys couldn't play," the coach said.

For Neill this was his second McCormick Cup. He was a main player on the 2003 team and although he played again this season, his contribution was more than that.

"Both of them mean different things," he said. "The first one was a pretty special moment, being a young kid and playing alongside the guys who taught me how to play rugby.

"This time around, I put more into it over a long period of time. That makes it special."

He hopes there are more celebrations to come for this group.

"I think it's a team that has a shot to win a few," Neill said. "We've got a reasonably young crop of old guys, if that makes sense, and we've built a lot of depth in terms of talent.

"Our midget and junior programs are turning out some really talented players who are moving through our men's system right through Ontario and Canada."