Richie Hall has spent most of his life in the Canadian Football League, with more than 30 years of experience as a player and coach.
And so Hall, who is in his seventh season as defensive co-ordinator for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, understands the importance of cherishing the big moments. Despite a playing career that spanned nine seasons split between the Calgary Stampeders and Saskatchewan Roughriders, and a coaching resume that’s lasted more than double that, Hall has just four Grey Cup championships: one as a player, three as a coach, in league that has fewer than 10 teams.
“I don’t think you should ever take things for granted because nothing’s ever guaranteed. It is difficult to get there. It’s difficult to win it,” Hall said Tuesday.
“As small as the league is, there’s a lot of players who played and had careers that never made the playoffs, so it is very challenging. We always want to try to seize the moment. Seize the moment for us is Sunday and going out there and playing the way that we’re capable of playing.”
The stage has been set for Sunday’s West Division final at IG Field, which will pin the Bombers against the Roughriders in a winner-moves-on affair. To get there, Saskatchewan narrowly edged the Stampeders, 33-30, in double overtime in last week’s West semi-final.
It’s a prairie classic, with the winner punching their ticket to the 108th Grey Cup in Hamilton on Dec. 12. What better matchup could the CFL ask for?
“Yeah, both games, the East final, too,” Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea said, noting another rivalry between the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Toronto Argonauts will determine the other club competing in the Grey Cup. “This is good for the CFL.”
“I don’t think you should ever take things for granted because nothing’s ever guaranteed. It is difficult to get there. It’s difficult to win it.” – Defensive co–ordinator Richie Hall
The Bombers didn’t need any late-game heroics to get to where they are. Winnipeg earned the bye last week after finishing atop the West with an 11-3 record, in a season where they were considered far and away the best team in the league.
They’ll enter Sunday’s game as the undisputed favourites, especially after beating the Roughriders twice this season by a combined score of 56-17. Winnipeg dominated Saskatchewan 23-8 at Mosaic Stadium in the annual Labour Day Classic over the September long weekend, and then dealt them a similar fate the following week in a 33-9 Banjo Bowl win.
But that was months ago, and the Roughriders, who finished 9-5, were dealing with injuries on both sides of the ball. Lots has changed since then, as both clubs have matured in all phases of the game, making a rematch all the more intriguing.
Saskatchewan’s defence has been its strong point all season, if only because the offence, led by quarterback Cody Fajardo, has been mostly inconsistent. Few were better at getting to the quarterback than the Roughriders, who were second only to the Montreal Alouettes when it comes to sacks, 49 to 47 (Winnipeg was third with 39).
“But I really feel that we’re more balanced than we have been in the past and have the ability to run the ball when needed or throw the ball when needed, depending on the flow of the game and how things are going..” – Bombers offensive co–ordinator Buck Pierce
But the secondary can be particularly dangerous at times, even if Saskatchewan allowed the most offensive touchdowns against this season, with 31. The Roughriders were second in forced turnovers, with four fewer than the Bombers’ 38, and are in a four-way tie with Montreal, B.C. and Hamilton for the most interceptions forced, with 17.
Against the Stampeders last week, Saskatchewan forced four turnovers, including a pair of interceptions.
“You want to be playing good football going in (to the playoffs) and they’re playing with confidence, believing in each other and it’s starting to click on that side of the ball for them,” Bombers offensive co-ordinator Buck Pierce said.
“At this point in the season, they’ve kind of found their identity of what they want to do. They’re well coached. They’re doing a good job of stopping the run. They’re doing a good job on their backend; they’re communicating well and making plays on the ball and just getting more comfortable and confident.”
The Bombers offence has also matured in the months since playing the Roughriders. Quarterback Zach Collaros is more confident with the playbook and the chemistry with the offence continues to blossom.
Winnipeg’s attack led the CFL in almost every meaningful statistical category, including first in average points per game (23), touchdowns (35) and average yards per play (6.5), while also surrendering the fewest number of sacks (16). Just consider: the Bombers had 15 West Division all-stars, including seven on offence.
“You look back at those games, you’re still looking to build on what you do well and what you want for an identity. I’ve always said we rely on what we do well, given our personnel, and build off those kinds of things,” Pierce said.
“But I really feel that we’re more balanced than we have been in the past and have the ability to run the ball when needed or throw the ball when needed, depending on the flow of the game and how things are going. If adjustments are needed to be made, I believe we’re at a point now to where we can be multi-(dimensional) and do some things like that to be effective.”
The Bombers are as healthy as they’ve been all season, though the status of star running back Andrew Harris is still unclear. Harris has yet to practise since injuring his knee during a road win over the Edmonton Elks in mid-October.
The feeling is Harris will play, but more should be known when the Bombers officially open the week of practice Wednesday afternoon.
It’s hard to imagine the Bombers defence is overly concerned about Fajardo. The Roughriders starting pivot hasn’t looked anything like the player from 2019, when he was voted as the West nominee for the league’s most outstanding player.
Against the Stampeders, Fajardo was intercepted four times. If there was any positive to his game, it came from his feet, with the 29-year-old leading the Roughriders in rushing with 89 yards on 10 carries, including a touchdown. His mobility is something the Bombers will want to keep in check.
“It’s something that we’ve talked about over the last number of years as far as being very cautious, very conscientious regarding when you’re rushing the passer because he does make plays,” Hall said. “I was looking at our tape the last time we played him in the Western Final (in 2019) and he had a big run for about 40 yards. It’s those kinds of plays that are explosion plays that he has been able to make and be very effective for their offence.”
Indeed, the Bombers and Roughriders met in the 2019 West final, with Winnipeg earning a 20-13 victory in a game that ended with Fajardo hitting the uprights with a pass to seal the win. This year, the game will be played in a sea of blue, with nearly 30,000 tickets already sold for Sunday’s tilt.
“Our players, even the young guys, really understand how important the fans are to us and how playing hard and being out on the field and giving the fans something to be proud of is important,” O’Shea said.
“There will be a moment for every guy that they recognize that it’s a full house and they’re loud as ever and they’ve just helped us.”
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.
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