SEASON PREVIEW: Looking for more: Women’s Rugby Panthers prepared to defend championship title in 2023

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The UPEI Women’s Rugby Panthers celebrate after winning the AUS championship in 2022.
The UPEI Women’s Rugby Panthers celebrate after winning the AUS championship in 2022.

As the start of the new rugby season nears, the UPEI Women’s Rugby Panthers are focused and determined to defend the AUS championship title they captured last season.

Ever since they carried that banner back to UPEI, the Panthers have embraced their championship identity, and now they’re hungry for more and are on a mission to preserve their reign on top.

“We are going to keep the ball rolling and do what we know best: to give our all,” said AUS all-star and U SPORTS all-Canadian Emily Duffy.

Reigning U SPORTS Coach of the Year, James Voye says last season’s story will be forever immortalized, and is proud of the championship’s significance to the program, the University, and rugby on Prince Edward Island.

“I'm extremely proud that we were able to win the 2022 AUS championship with our original players,” he said. “I have a tremendous amount of respect for those players, who all helped turn this program around in a short time.”

While it’s important to reflect and celebrate past accomplishments, the Panthers are ready to turn the page and treat the season like they have more to prove.

“Our historic win last year has been fuelling everyone to push themselves even further this offseason,” said Emma MacLean, who figures to play a more prominent role with the team this season. “We’re determined to show everyone that we aren't a ‘one-hit wonder,’ and are here to dominate our league. If we put our heads down and keep grinding, we'll be exactly where we need to be—at the top.”

The Panthers lineup will look a bit different this season as they’ll be without the services of several key veterans. But, with Duffy and MacLean leading the pack, and a talented group that still includes all-star fly half Charlotte Branchflower and veterans Tessa Hood, Mia Fradsham, Olivia MacLeod, and Annika Wadlegger, UPEI is in good hands to make another deep run.

“We lost some great players, but we were prepared for this transition and have other players who can fill these spots,” Duffy said. “Our backs are as speedy as ever and unafraid to get the job done. And our forwards are ready to bulldoze anyone in their path.”

The Panthers also need contributions from some fresh faces who will step into the starting lineup for the first time. Those players include Paige MacLean, who will be starting at the fly half position in just her second season. Ria Johnston is back and ready to show how dangerous a player she is, while rookie Alanna Mabey, who impressed at training camp, has the potential to be a huge threat. Abby Morice, Carla Stewart, and Mackenzie Stewart will share time at second row and stabilize the position for years to come.

As the team heads into this season, their greatest strength is their ability to play and execute different attacking structures depending on their opponent. UPEI has always been known to be a forward-oriented team that carries a strong pack, and while that’s still true, the Panthers added some dynamic pieces to the back line, who will bring more speed in the outside zones and open up other options.

The difference could be how well they defend. The St. FX X-Women had an uncharacteristic 3-3 season and are expected to bounce back, while the Acadia Axewomen finished atop the standings two years in a row. If the defence continues to take the strides Voye anticipates, then his team should be playing big games in late October and into November once again.

“We’re eager to begin the journey and I believe we have the makeup of a team ready for another championship run,” Voye said.

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