Stakes high for Bombers heading into Labour Day Classic

The Labour Day weekend is often referred to in the Canadian Football League by players and coaches alike as marking the start of the “real” season.

In a normal year, one that hasn’t been affected by a global health crisis, teams would have already eclipsed the midway point of the regular season come the first weekend of September. With only a final stretch of games to be played, and with temperatures cooling as it eases into fall, points are often viewed with greater significance despite accounting for the same two points as any other victory.

But with COVID-19 wiping out the first two months of the season, shortening the year from 18 games to 14, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers annual clash with the Saskatchewan Roughriders has brought on a different feel in 2021. Having played four games so far this season, the Bombers are just finding their groove, let alone feeling primed for a playoff push.

“I was just talking to (fullback) Mike Miller about that today, just saying how weird it is that we’re already having Sunday games in like Week 4, right?” Bombers running back Andrew Harris said following Wednesday’s practice at IG Field.

“But it’s just part of what we have to do now and, honestly, with the last 10 games, teams get in a bit of a rhythm and are working the kinks out. I still think the season is definitely going to pick up starting Labour Day and what better way than with all these rivalry games.”

Harris’ reasoning that the games will potentially hit a new level this weekend also has to do with what usually occurs in a normal season. Players will often say the four- or five-game mark of the regular season is when teams begin to build notable chemistry and gain comfort with the players around them.

With how much turnover there has been on teams in 2021, there’s little doubt clubs are still working through some early-season issues, especially with the absence of preseason games this year. It can be argued the Bombers, who have retained much of their 2019 Grey-Cup winning team, were in the best position to hit the ground running, an argument only strengthened by the club’s 3-1 record.

While they Bombers have suffered only one loss, the Roughriders are the only perfect team remaining in the CFL, at 3-0. While things may feel a bit unusual this weekend, you couldn’t ask for a better matchup. With the annual Banjo Bowl rematch the following week in Winnipeg, what happens over the next two weeks could have lasting effects on what’s always a tight race in the West Division.

“We see a smart team. They’re playing good — they’re 3-0, so they’re doing something right,” Bombers rookie defensive back Deatrick Nichols said. “You have to give a team respect when they deserve it. But we have to come out there and play physical, play fast and do our job. And let the best man win.”

<p>Blue Bombers RB Andrew Harris says success against the Roughriders this weekend and next is crucial.</p>
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Blue Bombers RB Andrew Harris says success against the Roughriders this weekend and next is crucial.

Nichols has been one of most impressive newcomers to the Bombers, one of a few rookie pieces in the secondary. He said he’s been updated by his teammates the last few days on just how special Sunday’s game is for everyone involved, including the hundreds of fans who travel to Regina to help add some blue to a sea of green.

The Roughriders announced weeks ago that Mosaic Stadium will be sold out Sunday. With more than 30,000 fans in attendance, in what is considered to be among the most hostile environments in the CFL, Nichols and his teammates are expected to have to tackle another opponent in crowd noise.

To prepare for such conditions, the Bombers have been blasting simulated crowd noise into IG Field during practice, reaching an uncomfortable decibel level.

“It gets kind of annoying and redundant, but it’s part of the process in preparing and when we come out at Mosaic it’s always live there and always a fun environment to play in and a hostile one,” Harris said. “There’s nothing better than shutting up 30,000 fans in their building and that’s what we’re aiming to do.”

A bit of trash talk is always part of the Labour Day process, especially between the two prairie rivals. Another common theme, though, is just how few and far between the Bombers get the last word. Some call it the Labour Day curse.

The numbers certainly suggest as much. This will be the 57th meeting between the two clubs, with the Bombers winning just once — in 2016, on a walk-off field goal by Justin Medlock — since 2004.

Despite the lack of victories on this particular weekend, the Bombers have still been known to spoil big moments in Regina. They defeated the Roughriders in their first regular-season game at the new Mosaic Stadium, in 2017, and downed them again two years later in the 2019 West Final — the Roughriders’ first home playoff game — which ultimately punched Winnipeg’s ticket to the Grey Cup.

The stakes will once again be high come Sunday, whether the game has a different feel to it or not, and no matter where it falls in the regular season.

“It’s massive. In a normal season we might play them three times and getting two wins back-to-back is definitely crucial,” Harris said.

“For us, anytime we’re playing a West team, especially in a shortened season, it’s absolutely crucial for playoff implications and it’s always fun when you got the Labour Day Classic and Banjo Bowl back to back.”

twitter: @jeffkhamilton

Jeff Hamilton

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