Six years have passed since the Pandas rugby squad last achieved conference glory with a Canada West championship, despite winning the event seven years in a row. This disappointing streak for the U of A ended on Sunday afternoon when the Pandas won their eighth gold medal in CanWest rugby.
After defeating the UBC Thunderbirds in Friday’s semi-final action, the Panda matched up against the U of C Dinos who had upset the six-time
defending CanWest rugby champions, the University of Lethbridge Pronghorns, for the second time this year. It was just one year ago that Lethbridge won their sixth championship after shutting out the Pandas in a lopsided 41-0 win, inspiring Alberta head coach Matt Parrish and his staff to make some major changes.
“We’ve always been close in the Canada West final, but we were probably the furthest away last year. That was a sort of shot to the neck that we needed to make a few changes to what we were doing,” Parrish said.
“The day after we lost, we said the changes have got to start now — we can’t start at tryouts and go from there. We knew which players we were going to have, and we got to the gym and our fitness coach started working them hard, and we kept them together and worked them hard, so when we came to tryouts and our first fitness session, every player came back fitter and stronger.”
The game itself between Alberta and Calgary was a defensive struggle that saw the two teams enter halftime deadlocked at a score of 5-5.
However, the Pandas calmed the nerves that affected them early in the game and scored three tries in the second half to pull away for the eventual 20-12 win. The Dinos looked poised for a comeback after a 65-yard run for a try with seven minutes remaining, but Parrish was confident in his team’s ability to close the game.
“We’ve done pretty well on getting ahead in our league games, and I’ve worked with the players on how you close out games with 10 minutes to go — some of the tactics you can use,” Parrish said. “I was pleased that we had that today, that we took advantage of what we’ve been working on.”
The championship game continued the Pandas’ undefeated record in 2012 which now sits at 6-0.
The U of A was further rewarded after the game with a number of major awards. Amee Svatos, a transfer from Oregon State University, was named the rookie of the year, Parrish walked away with coach of the year honours and Alberta third-year scrum-half Chelsea Guthrie was named the CanWest’s MVP.
Guthrie’s play was especially impressive, as this was her first season as a scrum-half after playing with Alberta as a centre. Parrish told her back in June that she was going to make the change in position and with a conference-leading six tries this season, the switch seems to have paid off.
“I was nervous about it just because there’s so much decision-making and so much more pressure. You’re touching the ball a lot more than at centre. At the same time, I was excited to take on the challenge because it’s only going to make me a better player learning different skills like passing, kicking and more decision-making,” Guthrie said.
“It’s definitely a lot more decision-making and just being more involved in the play, but I was happy with how it turned out and how I progressed over the season with it.”
The Pandas will now look ahead to the CIS national championships, hosted by St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, where they will represent the CanWest conference. Besides the host team, their other opponents have yet to be decided, but Parrish has made a point of visiting nationals every year, even when the Pandas didn’t qualify.
His familiarity with the tournament and with many of the other CIS schools gives the team confidence heading into this tournament at the start of November.
“Anything can happen if you can get to the final. The best team has been St. FX at home, and if we do get to play them, they’re obviously going to be really tough to beat. But we’ve got to try and win our pool first, which will likely be either Guelph or Queen’s,” Parrish said.
Besides the Pandas and the host St. FX X-Women, the national tournament will be made up of two representatives of the Ontario University Association, as well as the top schools representing Atlantic University Sports and the Réseau du sport étudiant du Québec.
The other universities competing at nationals on Nov. 1 will be decided over the course of this week and weekend.
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