Path for Queen’s women rugby team to national title looks to run through familiar foes

The Queen’s University women’s rugby team has been on a dominant run in head coach Dan Valley’s six-year tenure with the squad.

Since taking the reins in the 2017 season, the Gaels are 24-3 in Ontario University Athletics (OUA) regular-season play and 8-3 in the OUA Playoffs. It’s lead to two OUA titles in 2019 and 2022, and the 2021 U Sports championship at home in Kingston, Ont., over the Ottawa Gee-Gees.

WATCH | Queen’s wins 2021 national title:

U SPORTS Women’s Rugby National Championship: Gold Final – Ottawa vs Queen’s

Ottawa Gee Gees battle Queen’s Gaels in the U SPORTS Women’s Rugby National Championship Gold Final.

And yet with all the success, an OUA title is far from a given due to the presence of rival Guelph, as the Gryphons have held a 3-2 edge in OUA Championship games between the two clubs the last five seasons, despite Queen’s taking the last four regular-season meetings, including a 25-20 win on Sept. 23.

While Queen’s last regular-season loss to an opponent other than the Gryphons was six years ago, Guelph has not suffered a regular-season defeat at the hands of a team other than its Kingston rival since 2007 — the first year of Gryphons head coach Colette McAuley’s current 17-year tenure.

The pull of the Gryphons’ program was felt for years by second-year Gaels player Madison Donnelly, but she ultimately decided to leave home.

“I grew up wanting to go to Guelph,” the OUA Rookie of the Year told CBC Sports. “Guelph always had a reputation of being a super strong women’s rugby team… I never really thought of Queen’s as a possibility [until Valley reached out to the Little Britain, Ont., native in 11th grade].

“I watched the [2021 OUA Finals] where Queen’s actually lost to Guelph, but even so, just being in the environment, seeing and meeting the team, and seeing how they interact, it was a completely different feeling. I left my visit knowing that’s where I wanted to go.”

Fifth-year Siobhan Sheerin knows the rivalry all too well, being part of the 32-23 loss in the 2021 OUA Finals before playing a starring role in the Gaels winning the national title only a week later.

“I don’t think [Guelph and Queen’s] ever underestimate each other, we always know that it’s going to be a fist fight in the ring,” Sheerin told CBC Sports. “A lot of us are from the same rugby communities, we play on the same club teams, and have participated in national programs together. Regardless of the outcome, we come from similar backgrounds, so we’re always rooting for each other’s successes.”

The Gaels wrap up their season on Friday against the McMaster Marauders, looking to go to 6-0 and improve upon a 293-3 scoring margin against OUA opponents outside of the Gryphons. They will then turn their attention to an OUA post-season that culminates with the championship on Oct. 28.

Laval rivalry

There is also a good bet that another emerging rival out east in the Laval Rouge et Or will stand in Queen’s way for a national title as they hosts of the Nov. 1-5 women’s rugby championship.

Laval topped Queen’s in both the 2019 and 2022 gold-medal games, sandwiched around a Queen’s semifinal victory in 2021 en route to claiming gold.

WATCH | Laval tops Queen’s in 2022 gold-medal game:

U SPORTS Women’s Rugby National Championship: Laval vs. Queen’s

Watch Laval Rouge et Or face Queen’s Gaels in the gold medal game at U SPORTS Women’s Rugby National Championship from Victoria.

“We always know that it’s going to be a tight match against Laval,” said Sheerin, who played a crucial role in the 28-18 victory over Laval in 2021, scoring two tries in extra time. “We are not really familiar with the girls, I’ve played with a couple of them but I don’t know the entire team.

“When we’re playing Guelph, looking at each other in the scrums and looking at a familiar face it’s easier to say, ‘Let’s go, I’m ready to hit you’… When we’re talking about Laval, we need to get our energy from our own teammates.”

National team bonds

A unique aspect to nationals for elite-level players is getting to play against rivals that later become teammates at international events.

Donnelly singled out 2022 Canada West Rookie of the Year Carissa Norsten from the University of Victoria, who she competed against in the quarterfinals of the 2022 women’s rugby championship, then teamed up alongside her on Canada’s U20 women’s rugby team for Rugby Canada’s July tour in Ottawa.

WATCH | Donnelly, Norsten go head-to-head at 2022 nationals:

U SPORTS Women’s Rugby National Championship: Queen’s vs. UVIC

Watch Queen’s Gaels face UVIC Vikes in the U SPORTS Women’s Rugby National Championship quarter-finals from Victoria.

“I definitely had a bit of a rivalry [with Norsten],” said Donnelly. “But then getting to play with her, she’s just such an amazing player and we became friends. And [I also got to play with] other players from out west who I otherwise never would have gotten to play with. It makes it such a cool experience.”

Sheerin — who, along with Donnelly, has aspirations to compete for Canada’s 15s senior women’s rugby team — also had a busy summer competing internationally with Rugby Canada’s Maple Leaf Academy in the NextGen 7’s Tournament in Langford, B.C., in May, as well as Canada’s U23 women’s team for a two-match “Border Battle” series against the U.S. in July in Boston.

With so many links between Queen’s rugby program and the national team, from teammates participating in national programs, to coaches like Valley having a hand in various national teams, or recent alumni such as Sophie de Goede making an immediate impact on the senior women’s 15s and sevens squads, the school has become a unique resource for Rugby Canada.

“It was really nice to have my foundation where I can look to my left and right and have these girls that I’ve played with that I trust to have my back,” said Sheerin, who competed alongside six other Queen’s teammates in Boston, as well as having Valley and assistant coach Blake Wilson on the Border Battle coaching staff. 

“But I think what [the experience] did really well was merging all of us and giving us an opportunity to connect.”

Around the U Sports world:

  • The rugby teams aren’t the only women’s sports from Queen’s or Laval showing promise as the soccer teams both sit undefeated on the season. Queen’s is 7-0-1, while Laval is 8-0-1.

  • While Campbell Fair’s 55-yard boot for Ottawa in the Panda Game highlighted men’s football action, Western went into its bye week as the first team to reach six wins with a 21-10 decision over Windsor.

  • After outscoring McGill 11-0 across two wins this past weekend, the 6-0 York women’s field hockey team will get its toughest test of the season against the 5-1 University of Toronto in a two-game, home-and-home series, with matches set for Wednesday and Sunday.

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