Gryphon rugby women keep grip on OUA title

Rob Massey, Guelph Sports Journal

GUELPH – Guelph native Chloe Runge decided pretty early during her time at Centennial CVI that she wanted to play for the Guelph Gryphons women’s rugby team.

“Since Grade 11 I knew that Guelph was where I wanted to be,” she said Saturday on the turf at Varsity Field after completing the OUA portion of her university rugby career holding the championship trophy as one of the captains of the championship-winning Gryphons. “I came for recruiting in Grade 11 and I came back in Grade 12. If I didn’t get in, I decided I was going to take a gap year and come back. Thankfully I got in right out of high school and it’s been the best five years of my life.”

Runge added to her enjoyment of university rugby by barging across the line and touching the ball down in the Queen’s end zone twice in the second half to help the Gryphs hang on to the title with a 43-17 win over the Queen’s Gaels.

“Back-to-back is hard,” Gryphon coach Colette McAuley said. “Everyone’s always cheering for the underdog and the girls usually put a lot of pressure on themselves to repeat. I was really proud of them. They got the job done and they were poised and calm the whole game.”

The championship win was meant the Gryphs lifted the Monilex Bowl for the second time in as many years. It also completed an undefeated march through the OUA season for the Guelph side.

“We had a really high turnover from last year,” Runge said. “As Colette has said in interviews, we never call it a rebuilding year, but we knew we had different players and a different dynamic and I think we really adjusted our game to fit the athleticism that we have.”

“They’re a bit younger,” McAuley said of this year’s Gryphons. “I’ve got three fifth-years and that’s it. They’re a younger team, but they love to play mobile rugby around the park. We get stuck playing the crash game when we are a little bit chaotic, but they just have fun playing rugby. Whether it’s last year’s team or this year’s team, we just try to make sure that they are enjoying what they’re doing on the field. I try not to be too structured and give them a lot of autonomy and I think they’re really enjoying the year.”

The title was Guelph’s OUA-best 14th overall, putting the Gryphs a long way ahead of the next highest total of three for the Western Mustangs. The game marked the 10th consecutive appearance in the final for the Gryphs and it was also the ninth consecutive year the Gryphs and Gaels met in the playoffs and the fourth time that meeting came in the championship match. Guelph won in 2010 and 2012 and Queen’s won in 2013.

Runge had tears in her eyes as she and her teammates stood in a single line waiting to be awarded their championship medals, trophy and banner.

“It’s been an emotional adventure,” she said. “It’s been five years of ups and downs and it was just a great feeling.”

The Gryphs never trailed in the game, but Runge’s back-to-back tries eight minutes apart helped the Gryphs stymie a comeback attempt by the Gaels. Guelph led 22-5 at halftime before Queen’s fought back to close the gap to five points by the 10-minute mark of the second half and that margin remained for 16 minutes until Runge scored the first of her tries.

Julia Schell had a try and a drop goal for the Gryphs while Amara Hill and Emilie Nicholl also scored one try apiece and the Gryphs added a penalty try.

McKinley Hunt, Janna Slevinsky and Nadia Popov scored the tries for Queen’s and Popov kicked a convert.

Both the Gryphs and Gaels advance to the U Sports national championship tournament. Both are hoping that the new format for OUA league play help them at the national tournament.

“It made a huge difference,” Runge said. “In the past we were playing games primarily just offensively if you look at scores. This year we had to focus on our defence a lot more since we weren’t playing games that we could just put points on. I think that showed today. It was back and forth a bit and at the end we were able to pull away and I think that came down to our defence and the work that we put in there.”

“Look at our defence,” McAuley said. “Yes, they put 17 points on us, but Queen’s is a great squad and they’re really the only team that’s been able to put that kind of scoring prowess on us. I think our defence is great and you can only get better when you play defence and we’ve been able to play is since Game 1. It’ll be instrumental going into Nationals.”

The OUA league was divided into two divisions as usual this year. However, the divisions were populated based on the 2016 records of teams with the top five in the Shiels Division and the other five in the Russell Division.

The Gryphs have a bit of time to prepare for the national tournament that is to be played in Lethbridge, Alta., Nov. 2 to 5.

“We’ve definitely got to make sure that our fitness is where it needs to be,” Runge said. “We’ll do some endurance work to keep that up so that we can run with all the teams that are at Nationals. We’ll really hone in on our skills. We want to be able to cut out any unforced errors and just play our game.”

“We still have a lot of work to do before Nationals and the great thing about this season is that we actually have some time to do things,” McAuley said. “Normally it’s finals and the ice bath and you seem to be on a plane to Nationals. It’s really great the set-up this year. We’ve got a little bit of time to work out some kinks.”