By Thomas Becker
Winning a title is hard enough. Going for the rare repeat, knowing teams are gunning for you, is virtually impossible. But the UPEI Panthers are up for the task.
The Island was abuzz after UPEI captured their first Maritime championship last season. And the team is hoping to capture that thrilling feeling once again when they battle the UNB Ironmen for the NB/P.E.I. Men's Rugby League Championship.
"It should be an exciting game," said head coach Charles Waddell. "Every year we know UNB will field a strong team and it usually comes down to them and us in the league final."
The two teams will square off at College Field in Fredericton for the Mike Lloyd Cup – named after former Charlottetown Rural teacher and UNB graduate Mike Lloyd. The game is Saturday at 3 p.m.
The Ironmen finished with an undefeated 5-0-1 record, while the Panthers were 4-1-1. UPEI dropped their only game at the hands of UNB 29-0. But it was their first game of the season and the championship team from a year ago just needed time to gel. From there, the Island squad found their rhythm and took down opponents one after the other before running into their rivals once more. The Oct. 20 match against those same Ironmen showed how evenly matched the two teams are, as the game finished in a 13-13 stalemate.
"We had a very strong game when we played them in October," Waddell said. "We've analysed the result and tried to learn a some lessons from it. We're going into this weekend feeling prepared and confident."
If anyone has what it takes to upend the undefeated Ironmen, it's the gritty Panthers who already possess that championship pedigree.
"We're confident that if we play our hardworking style we'll give ourselves a great shot at taking the Cup back home."
The Panthers have a very nice blend of youth and experience this year. They've added a couple standout high school graduates, in back row Blake Jurkowski and centre Parker Cameron. While proven leaders in fly half Mark Lloyd (Mike Lloyd's son), winger Isaiah Hood and warhorse Terry Gallant have guided UPEI throughout the year.
They'll all be counted on again if a championship is in the cards.
"The way we're looking at it this year isn't any different. Both programs like to win and every UPEI-UNB game is a battle for provincial pride."