Across the CFL, rivalries tend to flare up based on success. Hamilton and Toronto, Edmonton and Calgary and Saskatchewan and Winnipeg will always have that neighbourly feud vibe, but it takes a little something to take that to the next level.
As we enter into the 2021 CFL season, there may be no better rivalry in the CFL than the one between the Roughriders and the Blue Bombers. The two teams played in the Western Final in 2019, with the Bombers of course getting the better of the host Riders, then winning the Grey Cup a week later in Calgary.
Twenty months after that dramatic and slightly crushing loss if you’re a Roughriders’ fan, Donnovan Bennett sat down with reporters that cover each team: Murray McCormick of the Regina Leader-Post and Darrin Bauming of BonfireSports.ca in Winnipeg. Despite the long layoff between their last game, both teams are still chasing the same things.
“Thursday (July 8) around noon, I was thinking, ‘Boy, this team can compete for first place. I don’t see any reasons why they can’t,’” McCormick said of the Riders’ chances this year.
Then, in one short burst of a pre-training camp practice, four players dropped to the turf with Achilles injuries. Larry Dean, Freddie Bishop, Nelson Lokombo and Jonathan Femi-Cole all were lost for the season.
“Competing for first I think was pretty possible, I wasn’t writing that off and then all the injuries happened. I hate to say can I get back to you (on the Riders’ chances) but they may be fighting for a playoff position now.
“Fighting for a playoff position and maybe a home game (are possible) if things work out well, but it’s going to be how they react to what happened, I think to really determine what’s going to happen. The West is really tough. It always is tough.”
In Winnipeg, the Bombers have been more fortunate than their Banjo Bowl partners one province to the west. Andrew Harris is resting through the majority of training camp, but head coach Mike O’Shea has said that his star running back will be ready when the team needs him. The Bombers, like the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, have been blessed with roster continuity. In a West Division that never dips in competitiveness, that’s a plus.
“That’ll be somebody we’re going to be watching at camp really closely,” Bauming said.
“Mike O’Shea was clear. They’re not asking Marc Liegghio to fill Justin Medlock’s shoes. They’re asking Marc to be Marc and Kyle Walters, the general manager reiterated the same thing, but they are big shoes to fill.
“Medlock was the leading scorer in that Grey Cup game. Without him and how good he was down the stretch, frankly, how good he was in all three kicking facets all season long for the Blue Bombers, I don’t know if they would be where they were in late November (2019).”
With Zach Collaros locked in at QB, the offensive line intact and defensive stalwarts like Willie Jefferson and Adam Bighill returning, Bauming sees O’Shea’s impact on the organization and the positive effect it’s had.
“It’s important to understand the culture that Mike O’Shea has instilled and built and nourished over the last five or six years here in Winnipeg and that’s a real selfless attitude. It’s a team-first attitude,” Bauming said.
“I see the strong personalities on this team. I’ve seen it for a number of years now, since Mike O’Shea arrived. They have bought in fully to the team mentality that it’s one for all and it’s all for one and that it doesn’t matter if you’re a Canadian practice roster player or you’re the starting quarterback or anybody in between; everybody has their role. Success comes from everybody contributing and working hard every single day.
“It’s really impressive that culture is not just built now inside the Blue Bombers locker room but that message is starting to emanate and reflect across the league. People know what they get in Winnipeg. (The environment is one that) people really want to be a part of.”
Running through each team in the West, Bauming sees a division that’s as tough as ever.
“With so many changes and so many new faces in new places in 2021 in the Canadian Football League, one thing in my opinion will remain the same and that’s a powerful, ultra competitive West Division,” he said.
“You asked me to stack up the West. Well, it’s stacked. That’s what you have to say. It’s really going to come down to those head-to-head matchups. Three between the Blue Bombers and the Elks this year, those will be important. And obviously, those games against Calgary and Saskatchewan and between the Stamps and Roughriders are going to be very important, especially in a shortened 14-game regular season to see who gets that home field advantage in the playoffs and who’s fighting for that third spot.”
There’ll no doubt be a buzz amongst fans across the league when Week 1 of the 2021 season rolls around. In Winnipeg and Regina, just like on the field, there will be a little something extra to it.