By Jim Bender
Different time, different place. But same two heated rivals determined to get to the CFL’s Holy Grail once again.
Just two years ago, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers rolled into Saskatchewan as the underdogs in the West Final and beat the Roughriders on their way to winning their first Grey Cup this century.
Then the pandemic killed the 2020 season and their chance to defend their title.
This Sunday, the Riders will roll into town to face the Bombers as the decided underdogs in the 2021 West Final.
“They are going to be well-rested, but we have a chance to go in there and take it from them like they did to us (in 2019),” Saskatchewan quarterback Cody Fajardo told the Regina Leader-Post after the Roughriders edged the Calgary Stampeders 33-30 in overtime in the semifinal. “That’s going to be our motto going forward.
“The guys are excited about the opportunity … It’s going to be intense, it’s going to be loud, it’s going to be a hostile environment because they have been the best team in the league for a reason.”
Winnipeg quarterback Zach Collaros, the CFL West Most Outstanding Player, readily admitted that he was jacked up to play – and beat – his former team in 2019.
“I don’t think those feelings will ever go away,” he said. “But it’s going to be an amazing atmosphere. And if you can’t get up for one of these games, then you shouldn’t be playing.
“Everybody’s goal is to hold the Grey Cup up at the end. We’ll reflect on the regular season and the post-season when that time comes. But really focused on this week right now.”
The reigning Grey Cup champs swept the Riders 2-0 in the regular season.
“Obviously excited for the opportunity,” Collaros said. “Can’t wait to play in front of our fans. It was a long week, waiting around to see who we were going to play. Sask is a great football team. Defensively, they’re very good up front, they really get after the passer and on the back end, they have a lot of veteran players that do a great job with their schemes. It’s going to be a battle, for sure, like the first two were. Really excited to get to work this week and play the game.”
The Bombers were closing in on a sellout early in the week.
Most games are won in the trenches and four of Winnipeg’s five offensive linemen were named western all-stars.
“Obviously, the continuity with those guys, their approach to the game, their ability to make adjustments, adapt, be on the same page (is important),” said offensive coordinator Buck Pierce. “The offensive line is a position group in football that five guys have to work together. You add a running back into the mix and now you get six guys working together on the same page. Those guys, credit to them, credit to (OL) coach, Marty Costello, putting those guys in good positions and letting those guys do what they do well.”
Both the Winnipeg offence and defence have proven to be better than Saskatchewan’s this year, but Saskatchewan has the edge in special teams. The Bombers have struggled with placekicking and kick returning all season.
“It’s one of three phases, and you go out to try and win your phase, especially on the kicking side,” said Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea. “On the special-teams side, you want to be the reason why your team wins and not the other way around. So, they’re good. Obviously, they’re well-coached, they’ve got good players and they play that phase hard, like the other phases they play, right? They don’t take that one for granted. I feel we do the same.”
The Bombers defence, which is chock-full of all-stars has been the key to most of Winnipeg’s 11 victories this season and you can expect them to be dominant once again.
“You know, we always want to try to seize the moment,” said defensive coordinator Richie Hall. “Seize the moment for us is Sunday, and go out there and play the way that we’re capable of playing. And hopefully, that’s good enough for us to play the next week and get a chance to, to win it all. But, up until then, up until now, we’ve done everything that we have set out to do and that’s put ourselves in a position where we can play until the middle of December. You know, it’s an honour to be in this position and enjoy the moment.”