REGINA — The Labour Day Classic — Roughriders vs. Blue Bombers, Green and White crazies vs. Blue and Gold diehards, Saskatchewan vs. Manitoba — was once THE Canadian Football League rivalry.
It was a showdown with a healthy hate-on, fuelled in part by a begrudging and mutual respect. Yes, even in the darkest times in CFL history — when team payrolls were being covered by the league headquarters and the number of franchises fluctuated from year to year — this one game, this intense rivalry, gave hope the heartbeat would never die.
An example: in the mid-1990s the venerable New York Times, in an attempt to get a taste of the three-down game and discover the soul of a storied old league, came to Taylor Field for their answer.
But in recent years — eight of them to be exact — the Labour Day matchup has been more 'Clunker' than 'Classic.' The Roughriders have ruled this particular weekend dramatically, dating back to 2004, dropping some dominant Bomber sides and thoroughly spanking the weaker ones.
And so the 2013 Labour Day contest that pits the 7-1 Riders against the 1-7 Bombers has more of a funereal feel to it than the usual frat-house party vibe.
Not only is the home side 14 1/2-point favourites, the visitors seem so lost they are actually eliciting pity from folks here. And that's exactly the kind of sentiment that tends to take the oomph out of a rivalry.
Most importantly, there's also this yet-to-be-answered question: given all the turmoil in Winnipeg, do the Bombers themselves even believe they can win this game?
"I'm sure there's some doubts, we just have to work through those," said head coach Tim Burke. "That's just part of being a mature team, believing that you can get it done. There's going to be adversity in every game. Knowing that you can handle that adversity and overcome that adversity is part of it as well.
"There's probably doubts. That's one of the things I addressed with the defence. We can't be like that. We've got to be like we were in 2011 where we kept us in the whole game and let our offence have a chance to win it at the end."
To their credit, the Riders were spitting out all the proper and respectful sound bites about the Bombers on Saturday. Stuff like there being good athletes on the Bomber roster, they are playing for their jobs and yadda, yadda, yadda.
"Even last week when we were playing Edmonton everyone was saying the same thing," said former Bomber Brendan LaBatte. "But when you actually go out there and have to block the guys you're playing against... I mean, just because they're a bad team doesn't mean they have bad players. They've got some good guys and we're going to have to be buckled up and be in a fight because they've got a lot of fight in them."
Well... even that's been debatable of late in Bomberland. The Bomber defence has been called out this week for its effort, or lack thereof, in last week's loss to Hamilton. And when they saw their effort on film...
"Coach told us he thought he did a horrible job of coaching, but when you put the film on, it's the players out there playing the game and that wasn't the team we know we were capable of being," said cornerback Jovon Johnson. "After watching it, it kind of left a bad feeling in your stomach about just the way that we played."
What was evident watching the Riders at their walk-through on Saturday was a not-so-quiet confidence that comes from winning — and expecting to win — week after week after week. The Bombers, meanwhile, have been in a transition phase, what with management and coaching changes and the airlift of personnel now in full force.
Interestingly, it might be said what this rivalry needs is a douse of gasoline to stoke the fire again. And that would come — like it or not Rider faithful — from a Bomber win, as improbable and unlikely as that seems right now.
"We've been saying it for a couple of weeks now: any win in the CFL is nice to change the morale of a locker-room," said quarterback Justin Goltz, who will make his third start. "We've got a dark cloud over our heads the past couple of weeks and it'd be nice to break through and see a little sunshine."
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