A dynasty in red and white

Inside centre Sam Skulsky breaks the tackle of a Bishop's defender in McGill's 69-0 romp on Sept. 26. / Photo: Andrew Dobrowolskyj

McGill “ruggernaut” rolling toward eighth-straight league championship

By Neale McDevitt

When asked about the other men’s university rugby teams in Quebec, Sean McCaffrey, the co-head coach of the McGill Redmen, measures his words carefully. “Sometimes it’s hard to gauge how strong our opponents are based on regular season games because in the past we’ve seen teams we’ve beaten easily before come back and play us much tighter in the playoffs,” he said.

Fans of entertaining rugby hope that that will be the case because, having played two-thirds of their six-game regular season, the 4-0 Redmen team have steamrolled their rivals, outscoring them 223 points to 28, including a 57-10 drubbing of the Concordia Stingers this past Sunday at Molson Stadium. “We have a solid team this year,” said McCaffrey in what could be the biggest understatement of the year.

And while McCaffrey admits that some of the Redmen’s success this year is due to the on-field exploits of Kyle Buckley, Alastair Crow and Sam Skulsky – a trio of backs who have had experience playing on the National U20 team – the squad is not a three-trick pony. “Because our backs have been blowing through people all season long, our forwards haven’t had  many chances to link up with them like we’ve been practicing,” he said. “But they are more than capable of winning a game if need be. This team doesn’t have many holes.”

Of course, this kind of dominance isn’t a new thing for the rugby Redmen. The team has won seven straight regular season championships in Quebec to go along with five Cup titles in the past seven years, including the last three years running. Still, the kind of continuity enjoyed by the rugby Redmen is rare in college sport, where each graduating class has the potential to decimate a dynasty.

To minimize the impact of such departures, the varsity squad has a farm team of sorts. “Players come into our program at 17 or 18, and very few of them will make the varsity team,” said McCaffrey. “Instead, they’ll play, and develop, on our club team. This way, we encourage them to stay with the program, we coach them and give them the support that they need. And when one guy graduates, his spot is filled by someone who has been practicing for two years and who really, really wants that spot.”

The dedication and commitment required by a player who hones his skills on the club before making it on the varsity side team is not lost on McCaffrey or his co-head coach Craig Beemer. “Every year we get between 70-90 guys at camp who want to play, so it isn’t always easy to stand out,” he said. “First and foremost is attitude. If you want to play for us, you better be willing to commit and willing to train. You can improve a whole lot as a player over four years if you are willing to push yourself.”

And the Redmen players do push themselves, training three times a week during the regular season and bumping it up to five sessions a week prior to the beginning of the playoffs – a far cry from McCaffrey’s early coaching experience with the team back in the late 1990s.

“We had our captain show up before a semi-final game the morning after a Halloween party and he took the coin toss still in his bear costume,” recalled McCaffrey with a laugh. “I think it’s fair to say that the program has evolved a fair bit since then.”