RUGBY nationals: Alberta's five in a row a run for the ages

RUGBY nationals: Alberta's five in a row a run for the ages

The University of Lethbridge is set to host the U SPORTS Women's Rugby Championship tournament this weekend. To celebrate, Canada West is looking back at the conference's previous national champions. Today, we look at the Alberta Pandas and their run of five straight titles between 1999 and 2003. 

Brian Swane, Special to Canada West

EDMONTON - From 1999 through 2003, the Pandas reigned uninterrupted as national champs, making history while simultaneously stimulating a rugby revolution that has essentially made replicating such a feat impossible.

"I don't think there will ever be a team that will do what we did," says Pandas head coach Matt Parrish. "We set the bar and other teams caught up, which is good."

The 2017 U SPORTS Women's Rugby Championship is coming to the University of Lethbridge's Community Stadium, Nov. 2 -5. This marks the 20th edition of event, held annually since 1998, one year before the Pandas officially became part of U SPORTS rugby and began their dynasty. 

"The local region at the time in Edmonton was very strong in women's rugby … and they came in and just dominated for five years, and then everyone else just caught up and rugby got better across the country," says Parrish.

Since 2003, Alberta has captured the Molinex Trophy once, in 2013, while five other teams spanning the country have won at least one national title, with several others picking up silver or bronze medals. Parrish helped lead a movement for the tournament to expand from six teams to the current eight-team format which was first used in 2015.

"I figured we had enough good teams across the country now to have a competitive eight," he says. "I've been to the last couple nationals and watched the other teams and the quality is good across all the conferences now where we can have two teams (from each of the four conferences)." 

Parrish was an assistant to head coach Helen Wright for Canada West's inaugural women's rugby season in 1999, when the Pandas defeated UBC 39-0 to win gold and qualify for nationals in Guelph. Facing Canada's best for the first time, Alberta proved dominant, going 4-0 and winning by an average of 38 points, culminating in a 20-3 triumph over the host and defending champ Gryphons.

"The first year is always the most fun year, because you go in with no idea," says Parrish. "I don't think anyone thought we were going to win. When Helen did the first budget she didn't even budget for us to go to nationals."

Alberta defended its title in 2000 with a championship victory over McGill in Lennoxville, Que. The next year, in Ottawa, the Pandas defeated Waterloo to capture gold, and followed with a fourth straight title in 2002 when they beat the Western Mustangs at the University of Toronto's Scarborough Campus.

In 2003, the Pandas hosted nationals at Strathcona Rugby Park and made it five-for-five, topping Lethbridge 20-3 in an unforgettable all-Prairies final played in nnly-on-the-Prairies conditions.

"It ended up being -14 and it had snowed the Saturday night, so we put the call out to bring your snow shovel on the Sunday morning," Parrish recalls. "So we had somebody with their tractor come out, and we had the crowd out before the game on the Sunday morning with their shovels clearing the pitch."

Wright stepped down following the season, and Parrish took over, guiding the Pandas to their sixth and seventh straight Canada West titles in 2004 and 2005, though Alberta's run at nationals came to an end, losing in the final to Western both years.

Competition was growing stiffer by the year, not only across Canada but most significantly in the Pandas' own backyard, where a power had emerged in Lethbridge. The Pronghorns ended Alberta's Western reign in 2006, beginning their own run of six consecutive Canada West titles, a period during which they held the Molinex Trophy from 2007 through 2009.

"When Lethbridge won the national championship for three years running I would argue we were the second best team in the country, [but] we only had one berth out of Canada West," Parrish says.

In response to this increasingly challenging landscape, Parrish had started taking bold new approaches in how he ran the program. In 2013, it paid off with Alberta's first Canada West title in seven years, followed by Molinex Trophy No. 6 with a win in the gold medal match against Concordia, in Antigonish, N.S.

"We just built to that stage," Parrish says. "I'd taken a long time to get to win again, and I realized what it took, so to get that winning feeling again was great."

Canada West continues to be at the forefront of revolutionizing university rugby, introducing Rugby 7s to its varsity sports lineup earlier this year. Alberta was one of six schools that fielded teams, and tryouts for the Pandas were larger than anything Parrish had previously experienced in his two decades at the U of A.

"Sevens is going to make a big difference again to the number of rugby players and the standards of rugby players , and I think we're going to see another shift," says Parrish.

"I'm already starting to see it." 

More on the U SPORTS Women's Rugby Championship: 

For more on the 2017 U SPORTS Women's Rugby Championship at the University of Lethbridge, click here.