By: Eamon Hillis
For the McMaster women’s rugby squad, the 2016 season came to a disappointing conclusion on Nov. 6 at the University Sports Championships, held in Victoria, BC. The U Sports tournament ran from Nov. 3-6 and hosted an impressive field of teams. The Marauders were looking to repeat their 2015 gold medal performance, but were unsuccessful.
“The teams were very good this year, and the road to the championship was incredibly difficult,” head coach Shaun Allen said. “The top four teams were all undefeated and conference champions. The field was perhaps a little stronger than last year.”
Mac came in to the tournament seeded seventh of eight, with the first four seeds allocated to the winner of each conference: St. Francis Xavier, Calgary, Ottawa, and Guelph (who defeated Mac in the Ontario University Athletics Championship). The remaining four seeds were assigned according to regulations, which state that teams from the same conference must be on the opposite sides of the tournament bracket. Thus, Mac was left with the difficult task of facing the second-seeded Ottawa Gee-Gees in the opening round.
This game against Ottawa was undoubtedly their most important, for failing to be victorious would eliminate any chance for McMaster to medal. Ottawa had dominated the Réseau du Sport Étudiant du Québec conference throughout the season, finishing 7-0 and entering the tournament with confidence.
Unfortunately, McMaster lost the competitive match 25-19, with both teams performing exceptionally well under the pressure. The Gee-Gees took the lead late with three consecutive tries in the second half, putting Mac in a desperate situation. The Marauders responded however with a try from Maddy Seatle, which was converted by Steph Black. Despite their efforts, it would turn out to be in vain as Ottawa would hold onto their lead.
“For the first five minutes of the match we played the best rugby we’ve played the entire season,” Allen said. “Our players showed an ability to play a style of rugby no other team at nationals were playing this year, which was to choose to move the ball and exploit the base. Unfortunately, we dealt with teams that kept it very tight and maintained good possession. The number of tackles we had to make across the three games was very high.”
With the loss to Ottawa, Mac was guaranteed two more consolation games set to take place Saturday and Sunday. They won 24-5 against Acadia. In the consolation finals on Sunday however, Mac faced Concordia where they lost 29-22.
It marked the end of a season that showed moments of great promise, and a warranted ambition to repeat as national champions. Their last two weeks of competition included a close loss to Guelph and, in the same game, the loss of Captain Katie Svoboda to a knee injury. Svoboda’s injury had a notable impact on team moral going into the U Sports tournament.
“She was a leader for us all season long, as our captain, but also in regard to her role in our system,” Allen said. “She is an extremely talented rugby player, and with her getting injured in the OUA final, it had an immediate effect both in that game and afterwards. It was something that we had to manage this week. We had to deal with the emotional stresses of that, as well as determining who will step up to take Katie’s place.”
Svoboda will return next season in what will be her fourth year of eligibility. She will be leading a younger group of women, with potentially many changes from this year.
“The true fifth-years that will definitely be leaving are: Steph Black, Rachel Van Fraassen, and Lauren Walkden,” Allen said. “There is also a group of fourth-year players that are graduating with their degrees. We will see how many will choose to return.”
With the prospect of losing key players, Coach Allen is very confident in his program and its ability to develop younger players.
“I firmly believe that we have the best strength and conditioning program in the country,” Allen said. “The access they have to world class strength and conditioning is incredible, and we have a group of very talented first-year players right now.”
Mac finishes this season slightly disappointed in their sixth placed result, but will be looking to future years with hopefulness and vehemence.