Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Goin' for bronze

Canada kept it close--a lot closer than most people expected. They only lost by six points (20-14), and Heather Moyse came tantalizingly close to eluding the last tackler on a long run at the end to score a try that would have set up a go-ahead conversion attempt.

But in the end, the better team won, and it will be England facing the Black Ferns in the gold medal match at the Women's Rugby World Cup on Sunday. Canada will play France for bronze, and if they play the way did on Tuesday, they have a very good shot. France is beatable, though they fought admirably against New Zealand. England, we learned yesterday, was beatable too; Canada just needed to hold on one more time on defense, break one more tackle on offense, make one less turnover, and who's to say what would have happened. But they didn't, and for all their fighting they just didn't quite match up to England. That's okay, though; yesterday's match was a huge step forward for a team that, in the past, has tended to lose to England by dozens of points. They're not quite caught up, but they're getting there. They can take another big step by beating France on Sunday. I'll be there to cheer them on, and you should be too. (As for the final: God save the Queen.)

I'd also like to say that the Journal's coverage of the event has been quite good, with regular, and occasionally multiple, articles in positions of prominence, and cover appearances on several occasions. Kudos to them. The Sun meanwhile, has been comparatively disappointing, though with a couple exceptions they're at least covering it when they should, which is appreciated. And then there's the Gateway.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

THREE kinds of football

The Gridiron Bears are in Calgary this afternoon. I doubt anyone will read this before the game, so I won't go too hard into preview mode, but I will make my prediction for the record: the Bears will win. Their defence, which shut down the Huskies last week, should have little trouble with the Dinos' offense, while the Bears' offense should start to gel a little more. (Of course, we've been saying that about the Eskimos all year, and look how long it's taken...)

The Bears and Pandas soccer teams opened their seasons yesterday at Foote Field against Lethbridge. I wasn't there, so I don't have much to say, but I will say that it kinda sucks for the Bears to give up the tying goal in time added on. Still, from glancing at the stats and report, it seems like they played pretty well, and they got twice as many shots on target as the Pronghorns (8-4, to be precise). I'll wait until I see them play before passing judgment, but it sounds like there's nothing to worry about.

The Pandas, meanwhile, beat Lethbridge 1-0. That's a far cry from the 5-5 scores I remember seeing in the past, which is a good thing. But if the stats are to be believed, this match wasn't as close as the score. The Pandas forced 'Horns keeper Megan Lumley to make an astounding 18 saves, versus 2 by Alberta's Caitlin Schmidt, and they had six corner kicks to none for Lethbridge. It's a little disappointing to only see one goal on that many chances, but this is still a big step up from the team that didn't make the Canada West playoffs last year (and even from the team that finished fifth in CIS after sneaking into the national championship as hosts). Both teams play Calgary tomorrow, and I won't be there either, unfortunately, so you can look forward to more hearsay-based analysis after those games.

The reason I wasn't there yesterday is a very good one: I was watching rugby. Once again, I wasn't at the same field as team Canada, so I can't give a direct report on the Pandas' contingent, but Katie Murray and Rania Burns did each score a try in a 45-5 win over Kazakhstan (or as the announcer in St. Albert kept saying, "Kazakhastan"). The 40-point win, together with New Zealand's surprisingly close 21-0 win over Scotland and Englands 27-8 win over France, means Canada managed to secure third place, so they'll play England, rather than New Zealand, in the semifinal. This is a good thing, but let's not get our hopes up too high: it just means that Canada has a slim shot at an upset instead of no shot at an upset. That's still definitely better, though.

I did finally see England play yesterday, and they were, as expected, fantastic. You can really tell that they (along with New Zealand) grew up in a rugby culture; they just know how to play the game. They'll be a very tough challenge for the Canadians, but not impossible. And beating them to reach the final would be a huge step for Canadian rugby, to be sure. (Though on the other hand, another Canada-New Zealand matchup might not be great for attendance at the final.)

If (heaven forbid) Canada does lose the semifinal, then they'll meet France in the third-place game. (Yes, I'm once again assuming New Zealand victory. So are you.) France is beatable. They did look good against Ireland (dammit) when I saw them, and they held their own against England, so by no stretch would they be an easy opponent for Canada. The Canucks wouldn't necessarily win, but they'd have a good shot. Frankly, I almost want Canada to lose to England so that the final matches are more interesting: New Zealand-England and Canada-France would make for far closer and more entertaining matches than New Zealand-Canada and England-France, more than likely. (But note that I said "almost": now that Ireland and Australia are out of the running [double dammit], Canada's my unquestioned first choice.)

The semifinals go Tuesday at Ellerslie Rugby Park. Go watch them. There's some fantastic rugby going on there, and there's very little in the world better than fantastic rugby.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Two kinds of football, two kinds of results

The Golden Bears lost on Saturday. That was to be expected, but the way it happened is a little disappointing, primarily because from the sounds of it the Huskies didn't play very well either. It might sound like a decent performance to be down 2 at the half, and up 1 after three quarters, but when the scores are 2–0 and 6–5, it's somewhat less encouraging.

On the plus side, rookie running back Tendayi Jozzy ran for an impressive 172 yards on 29 carries. On the minus side, that accounted for 65 per cent of the team's net offense, and rookie quarterback Quade Armstrong was only 9 of 21 for 105 yards. When you get 172 yards from your running back and can only put six points on the board, you've got some work to do.

In much better news, the Panda-laden Canadian women's rugby team recovered from their annihilation at the hands of New Zealand by inflicting an even more thorough annihilation upon Spain on Monday, winning 79–0. Former Panda Maria Gallo had five tries to lead the scoring, while Katie Murray had one.

For much of the second half, watching this game was like watching a Sevens match—Canada would get the ball and just take off as if Spain only had seven players trying to stop them. Eight tries in one half of rugby is just an insane number.

Of course, every team in the world will look a lot better against Spain than they do against New Zealand, but nonetheless the turnaround from the opening game is amazing. Against the Black Ferns, Canada could do absolutely nothing right; they never made the first tackle on defense, and they always got stopped on the first tackle on offense. Against Spain, exactly the opposite was true—hell, in the second half Spanish tacklers were basically just a rumour. There was a lot more than than a change of opposition working in Canada's favour, to be sure.

The win means, incredibly, that Canada is now ahead on point differential going into their final game of the pool stage. That's important, as it's the first tiebreaker in the standings that will almost certainly see a logjam among the teams vying for third and fourth.

But here's the trick: they kind of need to do it again. If Canada is to have any hope of finishing second in the end, they need to finish above fourth to avoid playing New Zealand again in the semifinals. (Notice how I'm taking it as a depressing given that the Black Ferns will beat Scotland.) To do that, they'll need help: first, with three teams already at 10 points, they absolutely have to beat Kazakhstan on Friday and score at least four tries in the process to get that bonus point in order to reach 10. But even that might not be enough even to boost them into fourth (and a semifinal shot), let alone into third place (second is impossible because France and England play each other). With France at +57 and England at +84, and those two teams relatively evenly matched (though England is certainly the favourite), it will likely take another blowout on Canada's part to jump into third place.

Can they do it? Yes. Will they? I guess we'll see on Friday.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

On a quick note: the Journal had women's sports on its cover for three straight days before today (rugby twice, along with Cassie Campbell's retirement). Am I dreaming? Probably.
Golden Bears gridiron season opener

I'm already coming through late with promised posts: this blog is way ahead of the curve.

This afternoon, the Bears open their regular season in Saskatoon against the Huskies. The immediate question is: can Alberta beat the team that's knocked them out in the Hardy Cup the last two seasons? The immediate answer is: Probably not. The Bears have lost too many players and are going against too good a team to reasonably expect a victory today. In general, I agree with everything Andrew Renfree said in the Gateway. (As an aside, it's nice to see they're continuing my tradition of articles declaring that teams won't win. I wonder if Andrew will get booed by the team.)

But the really interesting question is long-term: can the Bears finally make it past the Hardy Cup after losing in it the last three years? That I don't know. They have obstacles to overcome: the loss of both Jared Winkel and David Bissett at running back is huge, especially for a team that has depended on the running game for so much of its success. Starting quarterback Darryl Salmon also needs to be replaced, though frankly the team's recent success was to a certain extent despite him, rather than because of him. Still, new quarterbacks always come with growing pains.

On the plus side, the defense has eight starters back, including linebacker David Lowry, which is as surprising as it is important (that is, very). And coach Jerry Frieson knows what he's doing; he quickly turned around the once-pathetic team when he took the job, and he's not about to let them turn back.

In the end, I doubt they'll be able to match their 7-1 records of the last two years--but then, that's not what matters in the end. There will likely be early growing pains, but once they're past, it's hard to say how strong the team will be.

In sum: I have no idea how good the Bears will be this year. I guess we'll start finding out this afternoon.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Well, it looks like Dan Barnes was right

New Zealand 66-7 Canada. Well, let's look at it this way: it's probably best to get a game like that out of the way early. I didn't see it, as I was in St. Albert watching Scotland beat Spain (yay!) at the time, but it seems that was for the best. Let's just move on.

I did discover another Panda on Team Canada, that being former Pandas hoopster Rania Burns--who, as it happens, also apparently plays for the same Gaelic football club I do, although she hasn't been there since I started. (That's probably a good thing: having actual athletes around tends to make me quite depressed about my own performance.)

Burns and the rest of Team Canada are back on the pitch on Monday at 5pm in St. Albert, when they should have a much easier time against Spain. More on that as it approaches.

Coming Friday: an uninformed look at the Golden Bears (gridiron) football season, which starts Saturday in Saskatoon. Will the Bears be able to overcome key losses to finally get past the conference final? Hell if I know! Come back to find out!

Monday, August 28, 2006

Off with a bang

And what better way to kick off a blog dedicated to the most successful athletics program in Canada than with a World Cup in one of my three favourite kinds of football--namely, the Women's Rugby World Cup, which starts this Thursday here in Edmonton. The fourth-ranked Canadian squad has a strong Panda presence: off the top of my head, I count Maria Gallo, Summer Yeo, Heather MacDonald and Katie Murray as current or former Pandas on the squad. Chances to watch high-level rugby live here in Edmonton are rare, so I highly encourage anyone reading this to make it out to as much of the tournament as you can. I'll be updating throughout the event, although I'll probably be spending more time watching Ireland and Australia than Canada.

The Journal has a couple articles on the Cup today: Scott Peterson talks to, among others, Yeo, who suggests that Canada's got the size and strength to overpower the opposition, while Dan Barnes says, probably quite correctly, that nobody will beat New Zealand. Based on the one time I've seen the Black Ferns, it certainly seems that they've come across their Pandas-hockey-like winning record honestly (not to mention easily). But then, no one thought the Swedes would beat the Americans in women's hockey at the Olympic, so who knows? I guess tomorrow we'll find out how Canada compares.