Rugby rivals familiar foes in OUA final

Five seasons. Five finals.

If any two teams in Ontario University Athletics know everything there is to know about each other, it’s the McMaster Marauders and Western Mustangs men’s rugby sides. The two powers have been the class of the league in recent years and will meet in the OUA final for the fifth consecutive season on Saturday (Nov. 4) at Fletcher’s Fields in Markham.

McMaster is gunning for a second straight provincial banner and fourth in those five finals, while the Mustangs have an opportunity for a second title in the past three seasons.

In such a brutally physical sport, it would seem that two foes facing each other in the most critical match of the season so many times, would have a common hatred. Not so with these elite programs. A hearty respect has developed between the two teams, with players on either side having spent their entire OUA careers competing against one another in intense matches.

“From my perspective, we have a great rivalry,” says McMaster head coach Phil White. “There’s no hostility. We play hard against each other and the matches are competitive.”

“It’s always a better experience playing a team like McMaster,” says third-year veteran back Graeme Whyte, a med school student from Oshawa. “It’s beneficial to us playing a more competitive team. It’s more intense. If you make mistakes, you will pay for them quickly. It makes your focus sharper.”

Each team has experienced their share of obstacles this year, including a more well-balanced league that produced far fewer blowouts than previous seasons when the London and Hamilton schools, loaded with national level players, have dominated. Western lost some key personnel, including centre Sam Jenkins (second in OUA scoring in 2005 with 77 points), No. 8 Sean-Michael Stephen, and flanker Dan Polakoff. While the Mustangs had some atypical modest

The lineup came through in Western’s playoff opener last Sunday, as they defeated a tough Queen’s Golden Gaels side 15-10. Second-year back Andrew Buxton-Forman, from Port Elizabeth, South Africa is an example of the influential youth on the team, as he led the Mustangs with 10 points from a try, a convert and a penalty goal in the post-season win. “We tried guys at different spots,” says Whyte, who finished the year with six tries. “There was more opportunity for the young guys to get in there and prove themselves.”

McMaster persevered through a challenging season to finish 7-1, with the only loss coming in a tight 17-15 defeat to the Mustangs in Hamilton. Mac was plagued by injuries, the two most significant being hamstring troubles for fourth-year centre Daniel West and a hip flexor problem for fourth-year flanker Cam Mitchell, both members of Canada’s U-21 team.

But there has been little dip in form when those players were out. The Marauders are healthy again and will also have the services of fifth-year powerhouse prop Mike Pletch, another star who’s grown in the national team system.

“The huge benefit (of the injuries) is that we are now unbelievably strong,” says White. His team enters the final after an impressive 24-0 win over a strong Brock Badgers side in the semi-final round. “They’ve all got battle experience. And we’re peaking health wise.”

With so many crucial meetings between them, the sides won’t have too many surprises for each other but that hasn’t stopped White from dissecting video tape. Western’s powerful offence (scoring a West Division leading 293 points) is a major concern for the Marauders, who will have to be sharp defensively.

“It becomes a bit of a chess match,” says White, referring to the identical quality of both teams.

Pitch conditions may have the biggest impact on the final. When the two met in the regular season, the weather and field were good, making for a creative, free-flowing match. A muddy pitch will force the teams to play in tight quarters rather than risking errors by moving the ball to the outside.

“It could end up being a war of attrition,” says the McMaster coach. Western is prepared for any conditions. After a 15-13 heartbreaking loss in the 2005 final, the Mustangs have been looking forward to another chance against their biggest rival.

“I don’t think there’s any worse feeling than losing in the championship and seeing the other team celebrate,” Whyte says, recalling the pain of last fall. “It definitely motivated me this season. “I don’t want to experience that again.”

The Mac-Western final goes at 2 p.m. with the bronze medal match between Queen’s and Brock set for noon.