Fresh faces, high expectations
Let the title defence begin.
The McMaster women’s rugby team is coming off the best season in the program’s history, winning the Canadian Interuniversity Sport championship for the first time in school history.
The team had been building towards that moment. In 2014, Mac beat the University of Guelph – a powerhouse rugby program – in the Ontario University Athletics championship game to signal a changing of the guard. That squad won silver at the CIS national tournament that year.
In 2015, the Marauders broke through. They won the OUA championship at home and left no doubt in the CIS title game, where they defeated Queen’s, the tournament hosts, 27-3.
While maroon and grey fans will refer to them as the defending champs, do not expect to hear much talk about last year from the squad.
“We’re a fall sport, our season is done at the beginning of November. We had essentially six months to celebrate that success. We had a banquet in a way we had not done it before … the players got national championship rings,” said Shaun Allen, head coach of the women’s rugby team.
“Moving into this season, we had training camp [in early September] and we have to address [the championship]. In the first meeting, I brought it up and said ‘obviously we had a lot of success last year, but we had quite a few players that are not returning.’”
The team will be a different group this year. There are significant losses – like captain and last year’s female athlete of the year Cindy Nelles – that changes the fabric of the team.
Allen said the roster’s changes allow the team to close the book on the previous year. Now, the challenge is how this team will define themselves this season.
Part of the new definition involves a different style of play. Due to roster changes, Mac cannot simply run it back and expect to get the same results.
“It’s a different kind of team profile. There are different strengths and weaknesses on attack and defence. I think our attack is going to be really exciting this year.”
We have players in a lot of positions that can play with the ball, run sideline-to-sideline and spread out the other team,” Allen said.
In a conversation ahead of their season opener, Allen talked about what the defence might look like. Emily Ricketts, Christine Van Beest, and Nelles were three athletes that Allen pointed to as a key to last year’s defence. Who steps into those defensive gaps is one of the key storylines moving forward.
The roster losses are no surprise, and if there is a team that can absorb the changes, it is this one. Sara Svoboda, who played with Rugby Canada’s development team this summer, returns from a year off due to injury. And Mac has consistently recruited well over recent years, suggesting that there is talent who are ready for the opportunities.
All signs are positive after the first game. The Marauders worked the University of Toronto Varsity Blues 82-0, with Saffara Whiteley-Hoffelner scoring four tries in the game.
But games against teams like U of T won’t provide much clarity. The Sept. 23 match-up against Queen’s should paint a clearer picture of where the Marauders stand this season.