O’Leary: Bombers tune out world of pressure
WINNIPEG — It’s there, all around the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
On Sunday, the two-time defending Grey Cup champs will put their season on the line against the BC Lions in the Western Final. It’s their first post-season step toward making CFL history. If the Bombers can pull off this win, advance to the 109th Grey Cup and win that, they’ll become the first three-peat champion the league has since since Edmonton was in the midst of its five-in-a-row run from 1978-1982.
Thanks to their league-leading 15-3 record, the Bombers will play at IG Field in front of an expected crowd of over 30,000, all of them screaming through the onset of winter, trying to will their team on to Regina and another Grey Cup celebration back here around Nov. 21.
Then there’s their opponent. The 13-5 Lions are a determined, confident group (“I’ve been confident since I came out the womb,” Lions linebacker Jordan Williams declared on Saturday). Football fans east of BC might wonder how they’ll fare in the snowy, chilly Winnipeg atmosphere on Sunday, but the Lions have said the right things all week.
“They’re two-time defending champs. They have what we want and it’s going to be a challenge to go in there and take it,” Lions receiver Bryan Burnham said this week. “It’s going to be a battle, but that’s what football is all about and we can’t wait.”
Lions’ quarterback Nathan Rourke said earlier in the week he wanted his teammates to embrace the underdog role that some had put on them in this matchup.
“I think sometimes it can be harder to stay on top of the mountain than it can be to crawl up there,” he said on Saturday at IG Field.
The Blue Bombers are favoured in this game and have last year’s championship run to use as a template for this season. They’re a combined 15-2 at home over the last two years and haven’t lost a playoff game with reigning Most Outstanding Player Zach Collaros as their starter.
Those are all reasons for fans to be confident in their team; they can also turn into towering pillars of pressure if the Bombers think about them too much.
“A lot of those are simple facts, so why would you fight them?” Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea said of the circumstances around Sunday’s game.
“A lot of that stuff, our players are very aware, very knowledgeable and they handle these things very well. If I thought there was one particular fact that they’re talking about, I would certainly bring it up and we’d chat about it.
“For the most part we spend so much time looking at ourselves more than anything else going on outside that we can’t control anyway. We’ve done it for a number of years now. Our guys handle all those outside-the-building facts as just facts.”
It’s striking in talking with O’Shea and a multitude of Bombers players this week just how unaffected they are by the stakes that surround this game.
“We don’t feel any pressure or expectations. The only people that bring those type of things are you guys (media),” said Bombers’ defensive lineman Willie Jefferson.
He said that the leaders in the locker room have ensured over the last two seasons that no one gets caught up in storylines of title defences, or the expectations of fans. The focus, through 18 games this season and into the 19th and most important one to this point, has just been on what’s in front of them each week.
“(It’s) guys having experience being in Grey Cup situations, being in playoff situations, being on good teams, being on bad teams. Knowing how to win, how to lower your anxiety coming up to a big game,” he said. “A couple of these young guys on our team haven’t played in a game as big as this and it’s up to the leaders, the position group, the coaches to let them know this is another game, just take your time and go through your process.”
The Bombers’ process is a big part of their success. Earlier in the week, CJOB’s Derek Taylor tweeted out that linebacker Adam Bighill was at work well before the sun was up and that he was one of many players already at IG Field getting ready for this week’s game. Those early risers aren’t just limited to one position group.
“They do things the right way here,” Bombers receiver Greg Ellingson said. “I put in more work early mornings and late days here than any of the other organizations I’ve been with.
“It’s as a group, too. People do it individually all the time but we make sure that we’re here early for meetings when they’re not even mandatory, workouts every day too, for the whole year (starting) at 7:30 a.m. We’ve done more here than anywhere else and it shows.”
Bombers receiver Nic Demski said there are nerves on game day, but the leadership group within the team gets everyone on the same page.
“When you start letting your emotions get the best of you, that’s when things can kind of turn the wrong way,” he said. “I feel like having leaders who have all been here before calms the storm a little bit. I think that way, it’s a great help in this locker room.”
The stage will be big and the expectations of the thousands in the stands will be high, but it’s an environment that the Bombers have simplified and one they embrace.
“People will see the chemistry and the big plays and they’ll think, ‘Wow, how are they doing this?’ But it’s because we put the time and the work in,” Ellingson said.
“Little things like that is what makes the difference.”