For the last five seasons, the Brandon Barbarians Division 1 men’s team has come up short in the Rugby Manitoba league final. This year, they may be in tough to get there.
The Barbarians have lost a handful of key players and are in a bit of a rebuilding mode. Gone are Tom Robson, who led Brandon’s packs, flanker Kent Brown and Brad Lewis, who was big in scrums.
That will likely mean Jon Fitzpatrick, who coaches the Division 1 and 2 men’s teams, will rely more on the other returning veterans like Sean Common, who’s becoming an assistant coach as well as playing, and Shawn Sarkonak to lead the team while looking for other players to step up.
“Tom had a lot of leadership,” Fitzpatrick said. “Very quietly went about his job on the field and led by example and guys followed. He did the little things on the field that you need. That’s a big loss on the field and off, and on the practice field and in games.”
The Barbarians will get their first test this weekend when they open up the five-team Manitoba Cup pre-season tournament that runs on weekends for the next month. The regular season for the Division 1 Barbarians doesn’t begin until June 29 when they host the Highlanders.
With the season opener so far away, Fitzpatrick is happy his team has the chance to get a few exhibition games under its belt, which may help Division 1 to expand to five teams as well.
“I like the idea of the pre-season,” he said. “We’ve got a depleted first division league this year with another team dropping down, so it’s only a four-team league. The pre-season gives us a game against the Saracens, who won the second division last year, and they want to try their hand in the first division in the pre-season.
“It gives us a couple more games and more opportunities to play guys in positions they wouldn’t normally get to play. Pre-season games are fantastic, so it gives us a chance to expose them to the game.”
Meanwhile, the Division 2 Barbarians had a rough season that was plagued with injuries and resulted in them missing the playoffs last year. Although some players are expected to move up to Division 1, Fitzpatrick expects a much better team this season.
A lot of players are coming up from the Westman High School Rugby League and, while there are a few holes and question marks left, Fitzpatrick expects the Division 2 players to battle for a post-season berth.
“Our Div. 2 team I think is going to be a bit more competitive this year, which we’re pretty excited about,” said Fitzpatrick, who will have Stu Dyck as his assistant coach. “They’ll also be pushing guys in the first division a little bit more than they have in the past because there are so many new faces. We can look to develop more of an up-down rotation with guys and guys can steal spots, or if they keep improving then it pushes other guys to maintain their position.”
The Division 2 men begin their regular season on June 21 in Winnipeg when they take on the Sturgeon Creek Rowdies.
The Barbarian women are losing some veteran leadership as well, but have added some players from the high school and university ranks. Breanne Morgan and Emily Tuttosi from the University of Calgary Dinos and Charity Marchischuk and Erica Cranston from the St. Francis Xavier X-Women will be with the team until its time for them to return to school.
Barbarians manager Amy Higgins hopes having them will increase the level of intensity in practice, help the team get its defence organized, push to qualify for Division 1 in the second half of the season and chase a championship.
“We’re fairly confident in some of the skills we have offensively, we’re just trying to organize some defensive structure as that was one of our greatest hindrances last year,” she said. “We need a few more people to take on tackles and organize around the ruck.”
The Barbarian women, who fell in the Division 1 semifinals last season, open their season against the Brumbies today in Winnipeg. Their home opener comes on June 1 against the Wasps. The Division 1 and 2 men’s teams will also take on the Wasps that day in exhibition action.
LINE OUTS: Former Brandon Barbarian Amanda Thornborough is one week away from playing with the national women’s 15s team in New Zealand in its preparation for the World Cup and is $2,400 short of her fundraising goal. The national team is pay-to-play and she’s raising money to make it more affordable. Donations can be made at donate.rugbycanada.ca/e/athorn … Today’s Westman High School Rugby finals will feature the Minnedosa Chancellors visiting the Souris Sabres. The girls’ game kicks off at 11 a.m., followed by the boys’ match at 12:30 p.m.