It’s go time at Centennial Stadium as the first of two national university championships at the University of Victoria this school year starts tomorrow. The Vikes kick off the rugby championship against the Guelph Gryphons, at 7 p.m. Thursday at Centennial Stadium.
Hosting the rugby championship has been a boost for the Vikes program, as the women’s team has finally lurched ahead out of a decade with little to no progress.
It boasts national-level talent throughout the starting 15 and in the coaching ranks as well with Vikes head coach Brittany Waters, and assistant coaches Barbara Mervin, Laura Russell and Julianne Zussman. All are part of the national team and played in the 2013 Women’s Rugby World Cup.
The Vikes are coming off a second straight trip to the Canada West final in Lethbridge last week, although the Vikes were unable to defend their 2015 Canada West title, losing 29-14 to the Calgary Dinos.
The Vikes emerged as a top program in Canada last year when it won two straight victories to capture the school’s first-ever Canada West title and then won three games at the CIS National Championship to finish fifth in the nation.
“Having two great games under our belt from (the Canada West championships) and showing that we can fight for 80 minutes will be key for facing our quarter-final opponent,” Waters said. “(Last week was) crucial for improving on what let us down (at Canada West) so we can put in our best performance at nationals.”
The Vikes team is strong in all areas, and has the capability to beat any team in Canada. But rugby is a matter of execution.
“Calgary has had a great season and put in a very strong performance (in the Canada West final),” Waters said. “They executed their game plan well… It would be great to face them again at nationals and see what the result would be if we walked away with points every time we were near their try line rather than the turnovers that we had (that day).”
The recruitment class of three years ago was a pivotal turning point as Rugby Canada recommended to players such as up-and-coming national team fly half Jess Neilson that playing at UVic is part of an ideal path to wearing red full-time.
With Neilson already as good as it gets in university rugby at the No. 10 spot, the Vikes then added exceptional talents.
Up front is Chelsea Minter, a prop who started with the Vikes nine years ago but left after two seasons. In the meantime, Minter won multiple provincial championships with the Westshore (Velox) Valkyries during their Saanich tenure.
The fifth-year has been through it all in her Vikes career. From the lows of season-long losing streaks to the highs of back-to-back berths at the national championships, she’s seen the program mature into a contender.
“Watching the team grow and build has been amazing. In the last three years there have been so many big steps to get this program to a level where it can contend with the other top teams in the nation,” Minter said.
Minter and Neilson are two of the four Vikes named Canada West All-Stars this year.
Back-row forward Julia Folk was also listed to the All-Star team, as was Madeleine Graham, the third-year who is part of the Vikes’ dangerous backfield.
That backfield also includes Chanelle Edwards-Challenger, who’s in the pipeline for Canada’s powerful women’s sevens program.
It doesn’t end there, as in the thick of the Vikes’ fast transition is Gabby Senft, the No. 8 who won last season’s Rookie of the Year, and a member of the national team’s development program.
“There is going to be great rugby played at this tournament and that drives me to try and be the best that I can be,” Senft said. “The best is yet to come.”
The tourney starts with four quarterfinal matches at Wallace Field and Centennial on Thursday. The semifinals are Friday, 5 and 7 p.m. at Centennial, followed by consolation semifinals on Saturday, and the bronze. The consolation final is Sunday, 11 a.m. at Wallace Field. The bronze and gold medal games are at 1 and 3 p.m., respectively, at Centennial Stadium on Sunday.