Two-year break could set 2021 AUS rugby season to be the most competitive in years

HALIFAX, NS – Historically in AUS rugby, it’s been the St. FX X-Women, then everyone else.

Since 1998, StFX has won the conference every year except for 2015, which demanded the Acadia Axewomen squeeze by StFX in the final.

But, every so slightly over the past few COVID and non-COVID years, the balance of power has been changing. As powerful as the X-Women remain, Acadia has played them to close games several times over the past few years. With a large returning group from 2019, one would think the Axewomen will find a breakthrough sooner rather than later.

The same goes for the other side of the coin. The same way StFX is Acadia’s hump to get over, Acadia is that for the UPEI Panthers. UPEI has fought to a 2-4 record every year since 2013, with the X-Women and Axewomen always keeping them at bay. But they, too, have come very close to slaying their demons, coming within a try of taking down Acadia in one 2019 game. 

But it will be different for everyone following the COVID year. Even the SMU Huskies, chasing their first win since 2013. They raised eyebrows on Sept. 4, defeating Acadia and losing by only 10 points to StFX in exhibition action. Could this be a sign of a shuffle in the traditional standings order of StFX, Acadia, UPEI then SMU? Or could the very first exhibition games be just an illusion?

We’ll have more answers (and questions) Sept. 11, as the Huskies travel to Acadia and UPEI hosts the X-Women Saturday afternoon to kick off the season. With a nearly two-year break coming to an end, maybe this is the year we see some chaos in the standings.

Acadia Axewomen

Axewomen slip past Panthers with a 15-10 win on the Island
(Acadia Axemen Athletics)

The Axewomen have seemed to be creeping ever closer to the high-flying X-Women. They had the 2019 conference MVP and rookie of the year in Monique Coffey and Sarah Palfy, respectively. Both will be back. Acadia, led by head coach Matt Durant, has innovated with more of a fast, back-row-driven style of rugby than most of its AUS counterparts. The Axewomen’s recent recruiting has focused heavily on the back row and as result, that’s where the scoring’s been generated for the most part. 

Alongside fullback Coffey, fly half Annie Kennedy and winger Tori Hogan will be the big names offensively. The latter two scored 40 points apiece in 2019 while Hogan was tied for second in the AUS with six tries. Emilie Merilainen, who had five tries of her own, is expected to return too. She and Laura Pfleiderer were named all-stars at the 2019 U SPORTS championships. Acadia is fortunate to have several players return for another year after playing senior seasons in 2019. And believe me, they will be hungry to try and take down StFX as for many players, it’s their last shot.

Saint Francis-Xavier X-Women

Getting to Know...Katie Pentz

StFX remains by and far the class of the AUS. They’ll have a fairly new-look team with 35 (!) rookies reporting to training camp, but will maintain much of its core from its last couple of championship teams. Nonetheless, as long as Mike Cavanagh is at the head of the StFX program, the X-Women will remain the conference’s most dangerous. He’s been there for all six of FX’s U SPORTS titles, most recently in 2018.

StFX recently revealed captains Hannah Ellis and Maddie Harroun would return in 2021, bringing critical components of leadership to the younger team. Fly half Danielle Franada will return as well for her fourth year; in 2019, she led the conference in converts made with 14 and was fourth overall in league scoring with 38 points. I took her an insane three games to post that total.

AUS leading scorer Sam Lake has graduated from StFX, creating an opportunity for players to step up on the scoring side of things. With center Sam Hoerig and scrum half Madison Ross back, moving the ball effectively and creating chances shouldn’t be an issue. With not only the rookie class and returning group, but that deep, deep championship experience, the X-Women will not be any easier to handle in 2021.

Saint Mary’s Huskies

X-Women shutout Huskies in rugby season finale
(SMU Huskies Athletics)

Without a regular season win in six seasons, the Huskies will need to find a way to create change sooner than later. They began that process by promoting Emma DeLory to head coach early in the off-year, who worked with about 20 players who were in Halifax in 2020 through 2021. There are already some signs that their offseason work and recruiting are paying dividends, like their preseason performances against StFX and Acadia. But the real challenge lies ahead in the grind of the regular season, as the Huskies pursue their first AUS title.

SMU will have to embark on the 2021 season without their graduated 2019 AUS all-stars: number eight Marissa McBride and fly half Julie Naugler. However, 2019 leading scorer and the team’s kicker, Elish Redshaw, will be in the lineup. As will fellow try scorers from the previous season Brianna Willis and Heather Stanton. 

With 2019 scrum half Emma Baines graduated, the job will fall between rookies Katherine Fairbrother and Abigail Murray. There’s been plenty of change over the two years since the Huskies last set foot on the field. Thankfully for the Huskies, that’s very, very promising news for a program looking to flip its fortunes. 

UPEI Panthers 

SEASON PREVIEW: Women’s Rugby Panthers aim to close gap between them and conference’s best
(UPEI Panthers)

Recently, UPEI hasn’t made life easy on AUS teams. Yeah, St. FX has beat them up bad a few times, but the Panthers have kept their games competitive, especially against their rivals from Acadia. One challenge the Panthers will have to face in 2021 is the losses of 2019 leading scorers and key program pieces Frances MacWilliam and Tara Campbell. But newly-promoted head coach James Voye kept his team, and himself, busy through the off-year. From running regular sessions in COVID-minimal P.E.I. to Acadia-like recruiting with an emphasis on backs and skill, the Panthers will seek to establish a newer, fast-paced identity of rugby this season. 

At the centre of things for UPEI will be scrum half Mia Fradsham. In 2019, she was the highest-scoring player at her position with three tries and 17 points. 2018 rookie of the year Brinten Comeau and second-row Nicole Davies help round out the Panthers’ forward pack. 

2019 AUS all-star wing Mackenzie Hale, Emily Duffy and Tessa Hood, the latter two of whom tied for second on the team with three tries two years ago, will be big pieces moving forward. With much of the team maintaining chemistry through training in the off-year, UPEI has a shot to transition into the new season relatively smoothly, while motivated to take the next step.

Regular season predictions

  1. StFX
  2. Acadia
  3. UPEI
  4. SMU

One thought on “Two-year break could set 2021 AUS rugby season to be the most competitive in years

Leave a Reply