Gryphon rugby women rebuild for tougher schedule

Rob Massey, Guelph Sports Journal

GUELPH – Colette McCauley is starting her second decade as head coach of the Guelph Gryphons varsity women’s rugby team the same way she started her first – with a team having lost a lot of players to graduation.

If the Gryphs ever have rebuilding years, this is one.

“We had 15 athletes graduate from last year so there’s a lot of opportunity for these young rookies to make the program and for these third- and fourth-year girls to put a stamp on their legacy going forward,” McCauley said after the Gryphs hosted a pair of preseason tilts with the Ottawa Gee-Gees Tuesday on the grass field at the Gryphon Soccer Complex.

McCauley moved up from being an assistant coach on Jim Atkinson’s staff to the top spot after Atkinson retired. The Gryphs won the OUA championship in 2006 and finished as silver medalists at the then CIS national championship tournament.

Last year the Gryphs were OUA champions and finished fourth in the U Sports championship tournament.

“In 2007, my first year taking over, that was the Jacey Murphy, Jane Kirby, Brittany Sammut era,” McCauley said. “That was a harsh reality when we lost to Trent the first game of the season, but we fought back and we won bronze in the OUA (beating Trent in the bronze-medal match) and got to go to Nationals and also won bronze in the Nationals. The learning curve was huge with that group as I knew was going to happen and I think it’s the same thing with this group.”

This group, though, has a tougher regular season to deal with than the group from 2007. The OUA has changed its two-division format from a geographical one to one based on the performances on the teams.

The Gryphs are in the Shiels Division with the McMaster Marauders, Western Mustangs, Queen’s Gaels and York Lions. Those are the teams that had the best records in league play last year. The Russell Division consists of the Brock Badgers, Waterloo Warriors, Toronto Varsity Blues, Laurier Golden Hawks and Trent Excalibur.

“It’s completely different,” McCauley said of the league’s structure. “We used to be able to ease into the season and know we’d have a few easy games to get the kinks out. Now we don’t. Right after training camp, it’s regular season. We have to work on our systems to be ready Game 1.”

That might mean the 100-point performances by the Gryphs are a thing of the past. They had four of them last year as they beat Waterloo 106-0, Brock 117-0 and Laurier 153-0 in the regular season and Waterloo 132-0 in the quarter-finals.

“It’s really good,” McCauley said of the change. “It’s good for player development for the rugby that we’ll see and player safety. I’m really happy about it.”

The top two teams in the Russell Division will join the top four in the Shiels Division in the championship playoffs with the top two teams in the Shiels getting byes in the quarter-finals. The last-place Shiels team and the three bottom teams in the Russell Division will compete in the consolation playoffs.

The Gryphs will look to bounce back from a loss to Ottawa Tuesday as the Gee-Gees displayed plenty of speed in a one-sided victory in the veterans game.

“We’ve got a lot to work on,” McCauley said. “Me coming into camp halfway through is not ideal. I’m just coming back from the Women’s World Cup.”

McCauley was an assistant coach on the Canadian women’s national side that included former Gryphons Kirby and Brittany Kassil and finished fifth in the Women’s World Cup in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Saturday.

“We’ve got a lot of talent coming in,” McCauley said of the Gryphons. “There were 32 rookies that showed up at camp this year which is a whole lot of people to sort through and get into games and 25 minutes isn’t a whole lot to get that continuity going, but there’s good talent. The returning girls know what’s expected of them and we have high expectations so we just need to perform on the field and get on the same page.”

The Gryphs are to start their regular season Saturday with a game against Queen’s at Varsity Field. Game time is 1 p.m.

“We’ll just regroup,” McCauley said. “Clearly we need to get on the same page on the attack. Our structure was a little bit lax today and it’s hard to play individual rugby. Once everyone is on the same page, we’ll get through our systems and just coordinating our line speed and working together. I think it’s a quick, easy fix for the talented group we have here.”

And, as the Gryphs learned a decade ago, it’s possible.

“Without a doubt it’s 100 per cent possible,” McCauley said.