Chanelle Edwards-Challenger pushes back against a University of Alberta player during Sunday's game at Wallace Field.

Vikes a win away from rugby national championships

UVic Vikes face Alberta Pandas in Canada West semifinal and spot at CIS Women's Rugby Championship for the first time since 2005.

Rookie head coach Brittany Waters is looking to lead the UVic Vikes back to the CIS Women’s Rugby Championship for the first time since she was a player on the Vikes in 2005.

Because the CIS has allotted the Canada West conference two spots at the national championships, the Vikes can qualify by beating the Alberta Pandas in the Canada West semifinal on Friday (Oct. 23). The Canada West playoffs are in Edmonton, with the final going on Sunday.

Waters believes her team can beat the 3-1 Pandas, who held on to defeat the surging Vikes (2-2) at UVic last week, 34-28.

“[Alberta] has fourth and fifth year players who’ve been to nationals many times, so we’re up against that experience,” Waters said. “We have the talent on our team to win. Every game this season we’ve improved, we’ll have a strong performance and it will be a fight to the last whistle.”

Back in 2005, the Vikes didn’t win a game at nationals, but that was a different team.

The Vikes of the era routinely turned to players who were new to the sport of rugby, including Waters. Of course, Waters was an anomaly as she earned a CIS All-Star nomination at the 2005 national championship and was first identified by Rugby Canada.

At that time there was little relationship with Rugby Canada.

A visit with the Vikes in a casual setting today would reveal the Rugby Canada brand on various training gear.

“This is the most involvement we’ve had with Rugby Canada,” Waters said.

For starters, the Vikes coaching staff is a quartet of current Rugby Canada’s 15s players with Waters at the helm. Veteran Canada No. 8 Barbara Mervin, who won multiple provincial championships during Velox’s Saanich era, works the forwards with Canadian 15s captain Laura Russell (front and second rower), while Rugby Canada fly half/fullback Julianne Zussman works the backs with Waters, a wing/centre.

On the field, the 2015 Vikes boast highly touted rookies Pam Buisa and Channelle Edwards-Challenger, a pair of back rowers with the speed and size of international sevens quality.

Edwards-Challenger has already spent time with Rugby Canada’s sevens program, which is also high on Buisa’s potential. Another rookie forward, No. 8 Gabrielle Senft, stood out with three tries in the four game Canada West season.

All three bring the much needed size that former coach Mark Hall said the Vikes needed he departed following the 2014 season.

“UVic has been a smaller team, we did recruit some size over the past two years and it definitely helps in the forward pack,” Waters said.

“But more importantly we’ve been recruiting athletes, talented girls who are committed to playing at the top level and put that work in.”

There are others on the Rugby Canada long list, including No. 10 Jess Neilson and captain Tiffany Picketts.

Unfortunately, Picketts hasn’t played this season, as the injury bug took out all three of the projected front row players, including Julia Folk and Jaiden Parhar.

Instead, the Vikes have relied on fourth year Chelsea Marshall at hook and two first year props, Jennifer Appleby and Brooklyn Navarette.

“They’ve filled some pretty big shoes and did great on Sunday,” Waters said. 

Friday’s winners play the Canada West gold-medal game on Sunday (Oct. 25) at noon PST. The bronze medal match for the two losing semifinal sides is at 10 a.m. Sunday

The CIS Women’s Rugby Championship at Queen’s University from Nov. 4-8 in Kingston, Ont.

Game report, Oct. 18: Pandas 34 Vikes 28

The Vikes nearly recovered from a 17-7 deficit to the Alberta Pandas at the half time of their Oct. 18 match, only to fall six points shy.

First-year Vibes Gabrielle Senft, Nakisa Leval, Pam Buisa and second-year Gurpreet Dhaliwal added tries for the Vikes in the loss, with second-year Jess Neilson hitting all four of her attempted conversions.

Neilson finished the regular season second in Canada West scoring with 26 points. Vikes back Madeleine Graham was third with 20 points from four tries.

reporter@saanichnews.com