Hamilton, ON- The Queen’s Gaels women’s rugby team had reached the summit. Led by U Sports Coach of the Year Dan Valley, U Sports Player of the Year Sophie de Goede and a stellar team, the Gaels had avenged their OUA finals loss to the Guelph Gryphons to win the 2021 U Sports national championship. They did it at home at Nixon Field in the heart of Queen’s campus.
Now came the aftermath of that. Gone was de Goede, having finished her Gaels career with a U Sports bronze medal in women’s basketball. Back was Valley and the returning players – as well as the newcomers.
Valley said it’s a challenge to follow up on that accomplishment. “It’s not always the easiest thing to do to come off an event like that,” he noted. They acknowledged the accomplishments of last year’s team.
“While a lot of the pieces are there and the formula is going to look pretty similar, that we need to go and establish our own identity for this year’s team and this year’s chapter and go from there,” he added.
What is that identity? Being rock solid defensively, according to Valley. “We know that if we can work hard on the defensive side of the ball, if we can transition well and hold our own on set piece, then our attack is going to take care of itself,” he said.
True to form, the Gaels have been solid defensively, if not elite. Queen’s is currently 4-0 and has only allowed three points. They have scored 318 points in the meantime. They are ranked number one in the U Sports Top 10 and are among the favourites to win the national championship again.
On Saturday night at Ron Joyce Stadium at McMaster, they took on the number nine ranked Marauders.
Queen’s set the tone early with quick scores. They were strong defensively and broke free for runs and tries. It was 49-0 by halftime and 96-3 by the end of the game.
It was a collective effort for the visitors, with six players scoring tries. Lizzie Gibson led all players with four tries and 13 converts, totaling 46 points. It brings her season total to 116 points. The former U Sports Rookie of the Year was also named OUA Athlete of the Week.
The fourth-year Caledon native is a leader and go-to player, one of 12 players who are in their fourth year or more.
Against McMaster, they also set the tone. “We wanted to assert physical dominance at the point of contact,” Valley noted. “Then, when we felt we had established physical dominance at the point of contact and it’s at peace, then we wanted to open it up a little bit and see if we could ship the point of contact around the park a bit more.”
Their strong play is noticed by opponents as well. McMaster head coach Chris Jones pointed out their “exceptional” communication, coaching as well as their “incredible” individual skill.
“They changed their game plan based on our defensive fold halfway through, which was impressive, you know, for a team to change on the fly and see what we were doing and adjust to that,” he added. “That’s like long-term working together and playing together.”
It’s been a journey. In addition to the returning players, Valley is also in his sixth year as Queen’s head coach. He’s risen up the coaching ladder over the years with his time building Oakville Trafaglar high school into a powerhouse. He was named as an assistant coach to the Canadian women’s national team in 2018. He was an assistant coach on the McMaster Marauders team that won an OUA and national title in 2015.
Now, seven years later, he returned to Hamilton as a national champion once again. Valley talked with former McMaster head coach Shaun Allen after the game, perhaps reminiscing about that 2015 championship and the memories.
For as good as Queen’s has been and all they’ve accomplished, there’s still growth ahead. It’s what they’ve done since Valley took over. From losing to the Guelph Gryphons in the OUA finals in 2017 and 2018 to finally beating Guelph in 2019 at home to win the OUA title. From losing in the national championship game to Laval in 2019 to winning it in 2021.
For Valley, the continued growth this season is about their players and what evolutions or tweaks they can make as a team.
“You’re not tearing everything back to the studs to start rebuilding,” he said. “You’re simply looking at what ingredients we’ve got in the cupboard and how can we make that Michelin starred meal this year.”
Valley also said the team’s grown from some “heavyweight” matches this season. They faced off against Laval as well as the USA Under-20 and U-23 national teams in the preseason. They’ve also beaten York, Brock and Western in the regular season.
“Those are the types of matches where we really learned what we’re all about,” he noted. “Where we are able to sort of keep going and play to our strengths and then where do we need to work in some work to improve some gaps that we might have.”
Another heavy-weight test awaits: a OUA finals rematch on the road against the Gryphons, who are also 4-0. It’s another step in the road to grow and reach the summit once again.
Marauders Show Togetherness in Loss
Despite the final score, there was a sense of pride among the Marauders. “I never thought in my life, I would be as proud as I am at a 96-3 loss but I was so proud,” Jones said. The team met the goals they set out for the game. They were able to put sustained pressure on Queen’s in chunks, according to Jones.
“We wanted to maintain the ball possession for five phases a number of times and we were able to do that a few times,” he said. “We wanted to continue to work our defensive system, and while they put a lot of points on us, they put them in the areas we wanted them to.”
Jones said there was a focus going into this game. It comes perhaps from the challenge of playing the defending national champions. It allowed them to key in on their goals.
The Marauders made key tackles at times against Queen’s big runs. Captain Katie McLeod scored off a penalty conversion, much to the home crowd’s delight. It was McLeod’s fourth game in a row scoring points this season.
The team responded to Queen’s intensity with their own. “We wanted to be intense. We wanted to show them that they’re here, they’re playing Mac,” third-year player Osa Olaye said. “We wanted them to feel us and feel our presence and I feel like we did that.”
A key area of growth is playing together as a team. It’s a lesson the Marauders learned in their loss to Guelph.
“When you look back at the Guelph game, after about the 20th minute, 30th minute, we basically just ran around and tried to play individual games and I don’t think that ever happened here [against Queen’s],” Jones said. “Even when all of our bomb squad came in and filled in the last 10 minutes, they were playing our system too so I was really really proud of them.”
An example of that was with McMaster executing their defensive system of coverage and folds and the spaces to fill, according to him. Their system came up against Queen’s exceptional athletes, coaching and execution.
The game and calibre of opponent also provides opportunities to improve. For example, focusing on individual skill development. “Our girls were struggling to defend against a fend off, a hand off so that’s a technical skill that we’re going to have to work on individually,” he noted.
With the season coming down to the final two regular season games, playoff spots are at stake as well. Jones estimates the team will likely need to win their next two games to make the playoffs. The Marauders are currently 2-2 with games against York and Brock coming up.
Olaye said the team will look to carry their intensity into future games. “If we keep that up and keep going forward like that, we’re a force to be reckoned with,” she said.
Featured Image: James Paddle-Grant/Queen’s Athletics