FRIESEN: O’Shea, Bombers step into enemy territory

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HAMILTON – Winnipeg Blue Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea felt right at home the moment he touched down here in the Grey Cup city, Tuesday.

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Surrounded by antique aircraft in the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum adjacent to the Hamilton airport, O’Shea had a quick look around at the impressive collection of planes, chatting with a museum pilot about his family connection to the Royal Canadian Air Force.

“My dad was a navigator bombardier in a Mosquito,” O’Shea told reporters minutes later, referring to the nimble, all-wood aircraft used by Canada in World War II. “This is really cool.”

O’Shea likely won’t get the same warm-and-fuzzies when his team hits the field on Grey Cup Sunday.

You don’t need to have seen the clash between Tiger-Cats fans and Toronto players and staff after last Sunday’s East Final to know Hamilton supporters can get in your face.

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If O’Shea didn’t know it from his first three seasons as a player, he surely did after he bolted Steeltown to play for the hated Argonauts.

“There’s a lot of fond memories here,” he said. “And then there were a lot of boos. The joke is there might be a few D-cells coming my way as I’m standing there.”

Head coach Mike O’Shea (right) looks back as the Winnipeg Blue Bombers board a plane at Winnipeg International Airport on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021, en route to the 108th Grey Cup against the Tiger-Cats in Hamilton on Sunday.
Head coach Mike O’Shea (right) looks back as the Winnipeg Blue Bombers board a plane at Winnipeg International Airport on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021, en route to the 108th Grey Cup against the Tiger-Cats in Hamilton on Sunday. Photo by KEVIN KING /Winnipeg Sun

Two years is a long time to wait for a Grey Cup rematch, and perhaps some of the feelings have faded.

But the fact remains O’Shea’s Bombers took from the Tiger-Cats what the Tabbies thought was rightfully theirs in 2019.

Heavy favourites after a 15-3 regular season and boasting the CFL’s highest-scoring team on offence and its stingiest on defence, the Tiger-Cats were walloped, 33-12, by a Bombers squad on a magical, against-the-odds run to the franchise’s first Grey Cup in nearly three decades.

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When the defending champs got off the plane here on Tuesday, the cleat was clearly on the other foot.

It’s the Tiger-Cats who are now fueled by the league’s longest current title drought, going back to 1999.

It’s the Tabbies who hold the powerful underdog card, the nobody-is-giving-us-a-chance mantra that seems to add two inches and 20 pounds to some players in the biggest games.

Don’t think that’s worth anything tangible?

Andrew Harris and the rest of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers board a plane at Winnipeg International Airport on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021, en route to the 108th Grey Cup against the Tiger-Cats in Hamilton on Sunday.
Andrew Harris and the rest of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers board a plane at Winnipeg International Airport on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021, en route to the 108th Grey Cup against the Tiger-Cats in Hamilton on Sunday. Photo by KEVIN KING /Winnipeg Sun

Let’s take you back to what Bombers running back Andrew Harris told me in a special Winnipeg Sun series a year after the 2019 Grey Cup.

“I was just so sick and tired of hearing all this crap about who they were and how great they were,” Harris said then, recalling the days before the game. “And how tough it’s going to be for us to do anything against their offence and defence… how good Simoni Lawrence is – I didn’t want to hear any of it.

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“We really just wanted to play ball and shut everyone up.”

Harris didn’t say that at the time, of course. They never do.

But that’s how he felt by mid-week.

We all know how he played a few days later.

You can be sure the Tiger-Cats will dip into that well this week, after being repeatedly asked how they stand a chance against the juggernaut from Manitoba, which rolled to a league-best 11-3 mark – 11-1 before they began resting several starters, including quarterback Zach Collaros.

Defensive lineman Willie Jefferson, a late arrival, greets a Fast Air Jet Centre employee as the Winnipeg Blue Bombers board a plane at Winnipeg International Airport on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021, en route to the 108th Grey Cup against the Tiger-Cats in Hamilton on Sunday.
Defensive lineman Willie Jefferson, a late arrival, greets a Fast Air Jet Centre employee as the Winnipeg Blue Bombers board a plane at Winnipeg International Airport on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021, en route to the 108th Grey Cup against the Tiger-Cats in Hamilton on Sunday. Photo by KEVIN KING /Winnipeg Sun

Nobody scored more points than the Bombers and nobody gave up fewer, thanks to a defence that was historically good, especially when games were on the line in the fourth quarter.

Nobody turned the ball over less, or forced more giveaways than Winnipeg. Nobody took as few penalties.

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Nobody’s margin of victory was consistently well into the double digits the way Winnipeg’s was.

Everywhere these teams go – and Grey Cup week is like no other in that there are many places to go, people to see – they’ll be reminded of all that.

Of how the Bombers could win four of the league’s seven major individual awards when they hand out that hardware on Friday.

It’s enough to swell anyone’s head – and plunk a chip on the shoulder of the other guys.

The Bombers, with their workmanlike approach, seem as well-equipped as any to handle all the orchestral music. They just puts earplugs in, work boots on and get to the job at hand.

Offensive lineman Jermarcus Hardrick (centre) and the rest of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers board a plane at Winnipeg International Airport on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021, en route to the 108th Grey Cup against the Tiger-Cats in Hamilton on Sunday.
Offensive lineman Jermarcus Hardrick (centre) and the rest of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers board a plane at Winnipeg International Airport on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021, en route to the 108th Grey Cup against the Tiger-Cats in Hamilton on Sunday. Photo by KEVIN KING /Winnipeg Sun

But a funny thing can happen when the lights go on. The better team can wait for its superior machine to take over.

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Meanwhile, the little guy comes out swinging, with nothing to lose.

Next thing you know, the champs have been punched in the mouth and look a little surprised at the drop of blood on their lip.

The underdog picks up the scent and gains just a little confidence.

It happened to an extent in the West Final, the Bombers’ sloppy play allowing the Riders to hang around and nearly pull off the upset.

O’Shea told his players the adversity – turning the ball over six times, trailing by three at the half and after three quarters – is just what they needed to steel themselves for what’s to come.

A championship game against the home team? There’s a wildcard the 2019 Grey Cup didn’t have.

We’ll see how cool that is for O’Shea and the Bombers on Sunday.

pfriesen@postmedia.com
Twitter: @friesensunmedia

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