It was always going to be a tough match.
The Ontario University Athletics championship game pitted the two remaining undefeated teams in the league. Having dominated their respective divisions, McMaster and Guelph had yet to face each other this season, and there were high expectations of top-class rugby coming into the match.
Last year, Mac conquered Guelph in the OUA championship game, and proceeded to win the Canadian Interuniversity Sport championship a week later. However, in front of a packed Ron Joyce Stadium, the Mac women were unable to repeat as champions, losing to the Gryphons 24-7 in a physical battle.
In the first real test for the Marauders this season, the pace of play from Guelph was significantly faster and more polished than they had faced so far. Any time Mac made a mistake, whether it was a knock-on or giving up penalties, the Gryphons were able to capitalize, gaining significant field position and converting opportunities into points.
“Their forward pack is the best forward pack we’ve played this year, [and] they were able to put us under pressure,” head coach Shaun Allen said after the game. “Their lineout was very good; they were able to get quality possession from that. Both teams got some scrum penalties, but I would say overall that they probably won that fight. We didn’t respond to their physicality the way that we as a group would’ve wanted to if we played them again.”
Things were made more difficult at the 11-minute mark, where OUA All-star flanker Katie Svoboda went down with a lower body injury after receiving a pass from her sister Sara on a breakaway.
From that point, Guelph broke through the Mac defense, leading to three straight tries and jumped out to a 17-0 lead. The Gryphons had plenty of strong runners, especially in their forward pack, and were able to break down McMaster’s defence thanks to solid runs from the ruck and quick ball movement from the breakdown.
“For about 10 minutes there we went pretty passive,” Allen said. “We weren’t coming forward in defence; we were allowing some of their ball carriers to run at us. It’s pretty hard to make quality tackles when you’re letting players run at you. By not coming forward, they were able to manipulate our defence a little bit and create some space.”
Mac’s defense has been sturdy all year, posting plenty of shutouts and playing fluidly as a cohesive unit. But against Guelph they were uncharacteristically sloppy, attempting arm tackles and going high rather than displaying the disciplined tackling they have done all season.
The Marauders were able to score a try at the end of the first half to cut the lead to 10, but were unable to muster any offence in the second half. Most of the play took place in Mac’s end, where Guelph was constantly knocking on the door, and threatened to widen the game even more. Perhaps frustrated by the lack of possession, Mac gave up costly penalties that eventually led to two yellow cards to fly-half Steph Black and scrum-half Lauren Walkden. Being down to 14 players for 20 minutes doesn’t help any comeback attempt, and hurt Mac’s attempt at closing the gap.
“We probably got frustrated in the second half that we didn’t have more possession,” Allen said. “We were looking to turn the ball over before it was ready to be turned over. We didn’t change our behavior based on what the referee was calling. Whether we agree with that or not, she’s the one that’s in charge of the game.Despite the loss, Mac’s season is not over yet. They are currently training in Victoria, B.C., and will be looking to defend their national title in the U Sports championship tournament. Practice will be light, but there should be enough time to refocus.
“We’ve got three games to play next week, so it’s how we are going to rebound and recover, and what things we are going to do between now and next Thursday to put this [loss] behind us,” Allen said of their practice schedule for next week. “A lot of it is going to be focused on recovery and seeing where we are at in terms of personnel and injuries and all that, and go from there.”
While disappointed with the loss, the McMaster women’s team knows what top competition looks like, they are sure to focus on cleaning up their mistakes and practicing to a level where they can not only compete with the top teams in the country, but also conquer the best and get back on top of the rugby summit.