FRIESEN: Bombers aim for bullseye, Riders in the way

Article content

We hear a boatload of talk from the Winnipeg Blue Bombers about how close a team, how much like a family, they are.

Advertisement

Story continues below

Article content

Sunday afternoon, they get a chance to show it under extreme pressure and probably some adversity.

Nothing tests bonds on a football field quite like snow and a howling windchill in the minus-20’s with the season on the line.

If that doesn’t fray the ties that bind, the Saskatchewan Roughriders will do their best to pry the Bombers’ cold fingers off what they believe is rightfully theirs: a second straight Grey Cup.

“There’s a lot of bad blood on both sides,” Winnipeg’s Willie Jefferson said, Saturday. “This is the game that we wanted to play. This is the game that everybody in the CFL wants to see. We know there’s other games being played, but Saskatchewan versus Winnipeg in the finals to see who goes to the Grey Cup – you can’t ask for anything better than that.”

Advertisement

Story continues below

Article content

You can toss around Xs and Os like candies at Christmas – and they’re important, for sure – but something else often puts teams over the top at this time of year.

It happened for the Bombers late in 2019.

Reflecting on that against-the-odds playoff run months later, head coach Mike O’Shea said the most satisfying part was seeing his players learn why they were doing it.

It was the right group of players working for the right reason.

“For each other,” the coach said, then. “The win shows it to the fans and to everybody else. But very satisfying to realize prior to that they’ve figured out what it meant to be a teammate. To be a Blue Bomber. A 2019 Blue Bomber.”

This edition, laced with returning veterans, had a good head start. But it had to figure it out in a different way.

Advertisement

Story continues below

Article content

The pandemic was going to cut into how much time they could spend together away from the field.

It also kept wives and kids away from practices, a common sight two years ago.

And make no mistake, getting to know each other as people is a key ingredient to a Mike O’Shea-coached football team.

“It was one of the things that I thought of more than anything, in terms of how this was going to play out,” O’Shea said, Saturday. “Coming together, under tough circumstances. They’ve missed that part of it and they’ve still managed to get to know each other really well and become the team that they need to be.”

If the personal ties are as strong as they were the last time around, one significant detail has changed.

Adversity was a constant companion in 2019: the starting quarterback, lost to a shoulder injury. The star running back failing a drug test. Another quarterback fracturing an ankle. An entire playoffs spent on the road, through defending champion Calgary and hostile Saskatchewan.

Advertisement

Story continues below

Article content

By comparison, this journey has been a cakewalk, so far, first place wrapped up a month ago.

Linebacker Adam Bighill is quick to point out the defence had three significant holes in it when the season began, left by the departed Winston Rose, Marcus Sayles and the injured Mercy Maston.

“We didn’t know exactly how our back end was going to look and we found a couple great players, obviously,” Bighill said. “That was the start of it. It’s getting to this moment.

“It’s definitely premeditated. It’s where we want to be.”

How’d they get here?

‘Fit in or F-off’ may be the team motto hanging on the locker-room wall, but its identity revolves around another four-letter word: work.

“All we talk about is work,” Bighill continued. “And all I see people doing is working. We talk about earning it. Earning it and taking it.”

Advertisement

Story continues below

Article content

That’s why talk of pressure and being heavy favourites seems to flutter off this team’s back like snowflakes in the breeze.

They’re so busy hunkered down in the film room, they barely hear it.

By the time they hit the practice field, they’re well past understanding their mistakes and ready to take things to another level.

It takes a commitment well past the CFL-mandated four-and-a-half-hour workday.

“And that’s not common with the amount of guys that are doing that in this locker-room,” Bighill said. “That’s the kind of work I’m talking about. There are no question marks. You see your bullseye, you hit it. And that’s all we ask from every single guy.”

Being prepared to the nth degree limits the pressure.

If some gets through, there are enough players who seem to perform their best under it.

“Let’s be honest, the game is high-pressure,” Bighill said. “But I wouldn’t want it any different. I want to be the guy that has to perform at the last play under pressure. I thrive in that. And from what I’ve seen our entire squad does, as well.”

Sunday is a chance to show that, too. An extreme day that’ll demand extreme football.

It’ll also deliver a verdict on who the 2021 Blue Bombers really are.

pfriesen@postmedia.com

Twitter: @friesensunmedia

Advertisement

Story continues below

Comments

Postmedia is committed to maintaining a lively but civil forum for discussion and encourage all readers to share their views on our articles. Comments may take up to an hour for moderation before appearing on the site. We ask you to keep your comments relevant and respectful. We have enabled email notifications—you will now receive an email if you receive a reply to your comment, there is an update to a comment thread you follow or if a user you follow comments. Visit our Community Guidelines for more information and details on how to adjust your email settings.

View original article here Source