There are professors at St. F.X. who don’t get to spend as much time with the university president as the women’s rugby team does. Kent MacDonald hosts a meal for every X team that goes to a national championship, which for Mike Cavanagh’s squad is pretty much every year.
St. F. X., seeded second, opens the U Sports national tournament at Acadia with a game against Queen’s at 2 p.m. Thursday. The host Axewomen play defending national champion Ottawa at 7 p.m., while Calgary and Laval open the tournament at 11:30 and Guelph and Victoria play at 3:30.
The ultimate victor in Wolfville in Sunday’s final at Raymond Field will have won three games in four days, a rigorously far cry from the regular season schedule of one game a week.
Cavanagh’s group is prepared for that.
“Every Thanksgiving weekend, we go away and we do the exact same thing,” the coach said before a Wednesday practice at King’s-Edgehill School in Windsor. “We get a Wednesday night game here, a league game, and then we get on the bus. This year we played SMU on the Wednesday and then we drove to Ottawa, on the Friday we played Ottawa U, and then Queen’s on Saturday. We just try to re-enact what we do at nationals, and it seems to work for us.”
Cavanagh has led the X-Women to 19 AUS championships and five national titles, including every other season since 2010. So, mathematically speaking, they’re due to win again this year, and having played Queen’s already should help.
“We know each other very well, when we played they won on the last play of the game. They needed to score and when they did, the whistle went,” Cavanagh said. “We were a bit tired and missing a couple of starters and they hadn’t played in 10 days but that’s no excuse, they’re a good team. They’re very similar to Acadia, they’ve got some fast backs. I think this game will be tougher for them, and I think it’s a good matchup for us.”
In X’s favour is the presence of fifth-year prop Joanna Alphonso, a three-time All-Canadian and conference MVP, who leads a dominant pack of forwards. Cavanagh thinks if the rain that’s forecast falls, it’ll help his team.
“We have a very strong scrum and when we went up there we stole a lot of their ball, so a rainy day should help us, with a lot of scrummaging,” he said. “Hopefully, there’ll be no knock-ons, but the rain tends to have some effect on the ball handling. We’re a wet-weather team, it suits our style.
“We have to kick smart, we play our best rugby when we play in the other team’s half. For us to be successful, we have to get in their half and slowly start to pound away at them. I’d sooner play defence in their half than offence in our half. That will be the key to our success all weekend.”
Acadia coach Matt Durant hasn’t seen Ottawa in person, but pored over the Gee-Gees conference championship winning performance and recognized what he saw.
“In a lot of ways, their game is very similar to St. F.X. When we match up against St. F.X., it’s really a clash of two different styles. They’ve got some enormous forwards and they just try to pick and go and try to wear you down, whereas I think we have one of the most talented back lines in the country, from nine through 15. If we can keep the ball out wide and away from the break down, I think we can do some really exciting things,” said Durant, whose pack is also “quick and dynamic,” especially open side flanker Laura Pfleiderer, the AUS MVP. “Ottawa is a really good team at poaching the ball and stealing, so we’re going to have to support each other really well. You only have to be the best team for 60 minutes, and I think you’ll find we’ll play better against Ottawa than we did against St. F.X. this year.”
Durant also acknowledged the physical challenge his players face in trying to win three games in four days, but said if they weren’t tough enough to do it, they wouldn’t be rugby players.
A bigger challenge is taking on other great teams back to back to back, which isn’t how it goes in the regular season.
“It’s an immense challenge, it really is. We can’t control who we play, so one of the messages we have all season is that our style of play, our game, can’t change depending on who we’re playing against. So if we’re playing against Saint Mary’s, which is one of the weakest teams in the country, we have to play and execute exactly the same way as we will when we play (Thursday) against the defending national champion,” said Durant. “The reality is you can make some bad plays against some of the teams in our conference, and not play well, and still win by 60 or 70 points, so you create some bad habits.”
Durant said he’s sure his side will feel the pressure of playing the national tournament on its home pitch, but it was one of the topics dealt with at a team meeting (Tuesday) night led by his fifth-year players.
“They’re aware of the novelty of this situation, and I’ll think there will be a little bit of pressure with being at home and having so many people there,” he said. “But once we recognize the people there are cheering with us and not against us, I think it’s going to really empower a lot of our players.”