By: Monty Mosher
Acadia women's rugby had quite a run for a few years, defeating arch-rival and perennial powerhouse St. Francis Xavier in the 2015 AUS final after losing consecutive title games to the X-Women in 2013 and 2014.
But the results dried up a year ago, at least as it pertained to the X-Women, with three lopsided defeats, including 62-0 in the conference final in Antigonish. St. F.X. went on to claim the national title.
For Axewomen head coach Matthew Durant, the 2016 season was but a scratch and awaits the next time the two programs meet on the pitch. That will be Sept. 23 at St. F.X. with the return visit to Acadia to close the regular season on Oct. 15.
Both teams started the new season with wins on the weekend with Acadia defeating UPEI 58-12 and St. F.X. overpowering Saint Mary's 105-0.
"I always hate to use the term rebuild because you are constantly doing that at the U Sports level," Durant said this week. "But, after coming out of training camp this year, I think our team is more than three quarters first and second-year players.
"So we very much are in the initial stages of building what I think is a team that's going to be able to challenge in the next year or two for a national championship. We're really excited with what we've got going on."
When a program gets close to its goal it's hard to step back. Injuries and illness hurt the program a year ago, but that's in the past.
Durant isn't one to make excuses. However, last year's team took a hit at a critical time.
"Any time we don't win a conference championship it is a disappointment to us," Durant said. "But a lot of times rugby comes second to some of the things that happened last year.
"One of our players, right at a crucial time of year, was on life support for three days at a hospital because of a severe illness. It just knocked the mojo out of our team as we were heading into the (AUS) final and the nationals. Everything worked out OK in the end, but I don't think our focus was where it needed to be for the last few weeks of the season."
The leadership falls to seniors Angela Govier and Tamara Dondi, both members of the title team, but younger players have been thrust into significant roles. Acadia had five players from the under-18 national team join the side a year ago.
"It's just because of the number of them we have," said Durant. "Last year, I think I had the best recruiting year of anybody in the country. It's going to take a year or two to develop them and get them to buy into our system. But our future is very bright and I think a lot of those younger players are going to drive our success this year."
There are 19 recognized AUS women's rugby titles and 18 belong to the X-Women. They've set the standard for the conference, and often the country, producing talented players for Canada's national team.
Ghislaine Landry has an Olympic bronze medal to show for it.
The Axewomen respect their counterparts down the road, but the days of being awestruck ended years ago.
Acadia will point out that until the ugly result in last year's final the head-to-head series had been almost split over the previous few seasons.
"We're right there with them," Durant said. "Where we've fallen short is winning those key games when we need to. But our focus is never beating St. F.X. Our focus is to win a national championship. Beating St. F.X. is just part of the path to get there.
"We really don't see them as a team superior to us. We closed that gap a couple years ago. I think we're a top-five team in the country and our focus is chasing a medal at the U Sports (tournament) and no longer just trying to beat St. F.X."
There will be some setbacks. The team is short on experience and some of the players are still adding size and strength. All of that takes time.
"There will be some growing pains," Durant said. "We're hoping to host nationals here in a couple years and we're really building towards that. But our goal even this year is to get to nationals and win a medal."