BOMBSHELLS: West final matchup takes Bombers-Riders rivalry to all new level
REGINA — Normally when the Winnipeg Blue Bombers venture west to play the Saskatchewan Roughriders, Mosaic Stadium becomes the epicentre of one of the CFL’s most storied rivalries.
Each year, thousands of Winnipeggers travel to Regina to see their team take on the Saskatchewan Roughriders on Labour Day weekend, with Prairie bragging rights on the line.
The Bombers usually lose, but the fans certainly don’t as they get to experience one of the greatest things about the CFL — a jam-packed stadium, rocking with love for the three-down game. The fans, mostly good-natured, let each other have it and let their teams know they are firmly behind them.
This weekend, the setting will be the same, but this is much more than a rivalry game for the Blue Bombers and Riders.
This weekend it’s all on the line. The winner of Sunday’s West final gets to go to Calgary for the Grey Cup next week, the loser goes home to try to figure out what went wrong.
“We just understand the task at hand and that we want to go out and we want to win because we want to go to the Grey Cup,” Riders quarterback Cody Fajardo said Saturday at Mosaic Stadium. “We’re one game away from punching our ticket to the Grey Cup.
“At the beginning of the year, when you get into training camp, it seems so far away but everyone talks about the Grey Cup, the Grey Cup, the Grey Cup. Now we’re one game away from being there. A lot of guys are really fired up and we know Winnipeg’s gonna be fired up as well.”
The Riders finished in first place with a 13-5 record, which means they have home-field advantage in this crucial game against the 11-7 Bombers.
And did we mention that the Riders went 8-1 at home this year?
“There’s nothing greater than scoring a touchdown and bringing 30,000 fans to their feet,” Fajardo said. “Those are the moments that you remember for the rest of your life.”
The Riders also had an extra week to prepare for the game and that, combined with the home-field factor, is important when you consider only 10 teams have ever won two consecutive playoff games on the road to get to the Grey Cup.
“They’re only as big as you let them be,” Bombers coach Mike O’Shea said of those factors. “If our guys do their job and rely on their preparation and try to take some of the emotion out of it, stay as grounded as possible, then it’ll be OK. We’ve been in these situations before. We’ve been in this environment, where the crowd is loud and hostile and we prepare for it.”
The Bombers beat the Riders in Regina last year in the West semifinal.
The Bombers and Riders will meet for the fifth time this season. They played at Mosaic Stadium in the pre-season, again on Sept. 1 and again on Oct. 5, with the Riders winning both regular-season games.
They also played in Winnipeg once, with the Bombers winning big (35-10).
Is there some hate after going through all that?
“I wouldn’t say hate, but it’s definitely a rivalry,” Fajardo said. “It’s something the fans take a little more seriously than the players. It’s gonna be a smash-mouth football game like it always is with those guys. I think the most physical team is going to win (Sunday).”
PLAYING THROUGH PAIN
If this were merely a Labour Day Classic or Banjo Bowl, two of the more notable games on the CFL calendar, Fajardo likely wouldn’t even be playing. He’s got an injured oblique muscle, which has limited his ability to throw.
Bombers backup quarterback — or shall we say co-starter? — Chris Streveler is banged up as well, still battling an ankle and foot injury he suffered way back on Oct. 19.
The point is, that’s how much this game means. Players are willing to play through pain just to be a part of it. Streveler did it just last week and played a huge role in the Bombers 35-14 win by rushing for 82 yards and a touchdown.
“When you see a guy like (Streveler), you understand it’s playoffs,” Fajardo said. “Guys are going to be beat up, nicked up. His was a little bit different, I guess it’s a pretty serious injury when you have a bone that’s broken, or allegedly broken. But anytime you’re in playoffs you have an opportunity to go out there and when you play the whole season and then you’re injured for the playoffs, it hurts a bit more.
“But knowing that we have six months off after this helps you make a decision in your mind a little bit easier. We’ve got two games left and then six months off to recover and let everything else heal.”
Before last week’s win in Calgary, Bombers coach Mike O’Shea told the players “If you have anything left to give, now’s the time to give it.”
Streveler took those words to heart last week and will carry them forward into Sunday.
“That’s the mentality of not only me, but everyone on this team,” Streveler said. “If you’ve got anything left in the tank, now’s the time to use it because it’s do-or-die at this point.”
HAPPY FOR ZACH
Riders coach Craig Dickenson could never have imagined facing Bombers quarterback Zach Collaros in the West final this season after trading him away on July 31.
Collaros was dealt after spending six games on the injured list with a concussion. By that time, Fajardo had taken over as the starting quarterback and was having plenty of success.
The fact that Collaros somehow ended up back in Regina for this game, with the opposing team, really took some doing.
“Just to be clear we didn’t trade him to Winnipeg,” Dickenson said, drawing a laugh from the assembled media. “We traded him to Toronto.
“It’s unique but I’m happy for the guy — I really am. Now, do I want him to go out there and play his best game ever? No. But I want him to stay healthy and play well. I just hope we play a little bit better.”