Courtesy Brian Freeman, The Chronicle Herald
There’s good news and bad if you’re an Atlantic conference foe of the St. Francis Xavier women’s rugby team.
If you’re looking for a chink in the armour of the 12-time defending AUS champions, the X-Women are missing five veterans from last year’s squad, including superstar fly half Ghislaine Landry and two-time all-star Lisa Gauthier.
On the other hand, the X-Women still boast an enviable blend of youth and experience, they haven’t been beaten in a conference game in nearly six seasons and they have a big chip on their shoulder since falling to the Lethbridge Pronghorns in the CIS final for the second time in a row.
"We lost the national championship the last two years and we were close but I think everyone’s looking for a national championship for sure," coach Mike Cavanagh said Wednesday when asked about the team’s goals for the 2010 campaign.
"We never played our best rugby last year at nationals. There were a lot of disappointed girls and they’ve really put in the hard work in the off-season this year and they’ve come back bigger, fitter and ready to play."
Gone from the 2009 club are graduates Mary Giles, Mal Dobbin, Caroline Cunningham and Landry, who’ll be particularly missed. The two-time national player of the year was selected Atlantic conference MVP in each of her four seasons at St. F.X. and is the all-time leading scorer in Canadian women’s rugby. Also absent is Gauthier, the 2008 AUS rookie of the year, out for the season with a knee injury.
But fifth-year players Courtnay Malcolm and Megan Pritchard, both former all-stars, are among the key returnees, along with Tyson Beukeboom, national under-20 player Asya Bartley, and Amanda Bedard and Amanda Thornborough, who were also AUS rookies of the year.
Sprinkle into the mix a strong recruiting class and Cavanagh is confident the X-Women, CIS champs in 2006, are well-positioned to remain among the country’s upper echelon.
"When we lost the national championship last year, of our 15 starters, 10 were either first- or second-year," he said. "So we’re young and we’re gonna be strong for the next two or three years."
The X-Women, who open their season Saturday night in Antigonish against the Acadia Axewomen, trampled their AUS rivals again last year, going 7-0 — including a 67-7 shellacking of Saint Mary’s in the championship contest — and outscoring opponents 423-26.
Rated third in the country behind No. 1 Lethbridge and No. 2 Guelph in CIS rankings released Tuesday, St. F.X. has won every AUS crown since women’s rugby became a varsity sport in 1998. The X-Women haven’t dropped a game within the conference since a 15-11 setback to the UPEI Panthers on Oct. 16, 2004.
But Cavanagh, going into his 12th season at the helm, says the four-team conference is growing more competitive.
"I expect the league to be tougher. I think our conference is getting stronger every year. I think that our conference is stronger than the Quebec conference and I think we’re gaining ground every year on the Ontario conference."
In the other AUS opener Saturday afternoon, Saint Mary’s travels to Charlottetown to play the Panthers.