There will be a strong sense of familiarity when the Queen’s Gaels square off with the Guelph Gryphons in this weekend’s Ontario University Athletics men’s rugby championship match.
While the two provincial powerhouses have seen plenty of each other in recent years, both sides have strong Arrows connections: Guelph head coach Cory Hector serves as a coach with the Arrows and leads the Arrows Academy, while Queen’s head coach David Butcher has provided expertise to Canada’s Major League Rugby club as a specialist coach throughout the 2019 season.
The two perennial contenders will once again battle for the Turner Trophy on Sunday, November 10 when Guelph travels to the Gaels’ Nixon Field pitch. The match will be the sixth consecutive championship meeting between the two OUA sides.
“It’s six years in a row now, and it’s a game where I don’t have to give our players any extra motivation, as this rivalry offers all the motivation that’s needed,” said Hector, now in his fourth year leading the Gryphons’ program. “It’s an opportunity to play against a very good team. Our guys know that they’re going to get a really, really good game of rugby.”
Queen’s is hunting for its 25th OUA title, with six of those championships coming in the past seven years. The only team to break up that run is the Gryphons, who won a 25-24 thriller in penalty kicks in 2016. That victory was the last time an OUA opponent overcame the Gaels, who have racked up 27 straight wins, including the past two finals over Guelph (62-17 in 2017; 48-10 in 2018).
“In terms of having a seventh crack at the title in eight years, we really pride ourselves on building that record,” said Butcher, who is in his third season at the helm of the Gaels. “It’s something our boys really take pride in, and you can see that on their faces when you watch them play. The fact that they get so annoyed when anyone scores against them, you can tell they really take pride in not conceding tries, and that mentality builds towards a desire to win every time they hit the pitch.”
With the Arrows set to enter its sophomore season in Major League Rugby, the post-secondary system is already proving to be a steady pipeline of top-tier talent to Canada’s first professional rugby union side.
The Gaels and Gryphons have seen several of their alumni graduate to the Arrows, and both head coaches are pleased with the strong linkages developing between the Arrows and the university game.
“I think what’s been particularly inspiring for our players is they can look at the Arrows roster and see just how many guys have come through the OUA,” said Hector. “It’s really becoming recognized by current OUA players that this league is a pathway to the Arrows. You look at players like Lucas Rumball, who captained Queen’s, John Sheridan who captained Guelph, Marcello Wainwright and Kolby Francis who played in this final for four years, and Riley Di Nardo is coming into his fourth year in the final. Before them, players like Rob Brouwer, Mike Sheppard, and Andrew Ferguson won championships for McMaster. There’s just so many ties to the OUA, and those ties are only growing.”
Toronto’s inaugural season roster was populated with 20 players that came through the OUA, and several more that featured on post-secondary sides based in provinces beyond Ontario.
“The Toronto Arrows, and specifically the Arrows Academy, provide a really aspirational pathway to our players,” added Butcher. “I genuinely believe that the university system is a wider academy for the MLR. It’s one of the only places where players are immersed in a practically full-time training environment, and I think the Arrows are already starting to engage in that. They’re really invested in trying to generate partnerships with the universities, and I think they’re already making big strides there.”
Hector agreed with his Queen’s counterpart, noting that the post-secondary setup allows players to properly prepare themselves for a professional career.
“An OUA rugby season is 10 weeks of games, plus a preseason, plus a national championship afterwards,” said Hector. “With the rigours of having to be focused week in, week out, combined with having to balance life outside of rugby with several accountabilities in the gym and in the classroom, life in the OUA is not that far off from what life is like in an MLR season.”
Butcher sees the Arrows Academy filling a much-needed gap that will bridge university rugby with its professional counterpart, and raise the standard of elite Canadian rugby in the process.
“If you look at how the Arrows Academy will operate, it’s going to work in partnership with university programs,” said Butcher. “You’ve got the August to November window when the universities will play, and then after that, the Arrows Academy will take over and increase player development. I think this is why the Arrows Academy can be a bit of a gamechanger in the Canadian landscape of rugby, because it’s going to be focused on developing individual players, and putting more players in a position to achieve their full potential.”
The OUA championship will kick off is at 1 p.m., with the game streamed live on oua.tv.
Ticketing Note: Toronto Arrows 2020 season ticket packages are now on sale, starting at $120 (inc. taxes).