Westman rugby fans are hoping 13 proves to be a lucky number.
That’s how many players the region is sending to the National Championship Festival in Calgary from Aug. 5-10 as part of Manitoba’s under-18 boys’ and girls’ rugby teams, and they’re looking for solid results.
Manitoba’s women’s team — which includes Brandonites Brittany Boschman and Kelly Braun as well as Hailey Rapsky and Mallory Workman of Minnedosa, Charlotte West and Kendra Roberts of Souris and Mary Hughes of Dauphin — is looking to improve on its sixth place finish last year.
Manitoba has lost some key veterans this year, including the Tuttosi twins as well as Charity Marchischuk and Erica Cranston, but head coach Shawn Sarkonak of Brandon believes he’s got other players who are ready to take over as leaders, including one who brings a lot of experience.
"We’ve added some new ones that are coming in to take their places, but it’s a lot of inexperience," he said. "Charlotte West, this will be her fourth nationals. She brings the most depth to the team. Charlotte will be one of our key players we’ll be leaning on to bring some experience and add some depth to the team."
The National Championship Festival teams are a step up from the high school and Prairie Rugby Championship ranks, and the players learned that last weekend.
Brandon hosted a series of exhibition matches for Manitoba’s and Saskatchewan’s U18 squads as well as a U20 team from Minnesota. It was the first time the Manitoba girls had played together and it showed, losing all four of their games.
However, Sarkonak said the players started to figure out how they fit together and how they will have to play to be successful in Calgary.
"I think girls who are coming into the fold for the first time are getting a chance to see what the pace of the game is really going to be like," he said. "You can tell them till you’re blue in the face that the pace is different from when you go from high school to the Prairie Regional Championship to nationals, but until you really experience it firsthand you don’t really have an idea of what you’re getting into until you get out there. I think they’ve seen what lies ahead and they’re ready for it."
Manitoba’s men’s team — which includes Brandon’s Bryce Colquhoun, Daniel Alvarenga and Conor Farran as well as Minnedosa’s Norman Sims and Logan Patterson and Souris’s Nathan Greig — has been placed in the second tier of its competition and won’t be able to finish any higher than fifth. That, however, won’t deter the squad.
How the team fares at this year’s event will determine where Manitoba starts next year. Head coach Sandy Donald of Brandon thinks his team will face some challenges but believes they will find a way to pull through, especially with Greig and Colquhoun back after playing with the under-19 Prairie Wolf Pack at the Canadian Rugby Championship.
"We just have to play at the top of our game at all times," Donald said. "I think we just need to focus and not get distracted. We don’t know what’s coming out of the Maritimes, it’s always a bit of an unknown entity. We know what’s coming out of Saskatchewan, we played them a couple times on the weekend, so we know what their tendencies are."
Manitoba’s preliminary round group includes Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and P.E.I.
Donald saw some growth in his team’s exhibition games against Saskatchewan last weekend and believes his team will be ready after another week of practices.
"We’re looking forward to it," Donald said. "It will be very, very good for the boys and that’s why we do it is to give these guys a really, really good experience so they keep playing the game and we’re going to manage that quite nicely."
Meanwhile, a pair of Westman rugby players are off to the National Women’s League in Ottawa. Souris’s Emily Tuttosi and Minnedosa’s Breanne Morgan, both members of the University of Calgary Dinos, will be on the Prairie squad playing in the five-team event that starts Tuesday and runs through to Aug. 3.