One of the great advantages that comes with a nine-team league is rivalry. When teams play each other consistently and are always at odds for playoff seeding, dislike for the other side will naturally grow.
Thanks to the CFL’s long history and well established franchises we have benchmark rivalries to lean on, as well. You already know the list, be it Winnipeg-Saskatchewan, the battle of Alberta or the QEW rivalry of Black and Gold versus Double Blue.
In recent years there is an untraditional rivalry brewing below the surface. One that doesn’t hold the same weight as others and is never featured prominently on the CFL calendar, but somehow, some way, Winnipeg at Toronto has created some of the most memorable matchups of the last two seasons, with their annual showdown in The Six going down tonight as an Independence Day nightcap.
Over the past two seasons the Winnipeg Blue Bombers have obviously been crowned Grey Cup champions, but the rare thorn in their side has appeared in the form of a trip to BMO Field both years.
In 2019 then-Bombers running back Andrew Harris helped raise Winnipeg to a 20-point lead in the second quarter before McLeod Bethel-Thompson began throwing Toronto back into the game, compiling the strongest performance of his season, completing 37 of 49 passes for 343 yards and three touchdowns to lead Toronto to its first win of the year a week after falling against the same Bombers in Winnipeg.
The Winnipeg collapse included then QB Matt Nichols completing just 50 per cent of his passes in the second half, while Harris piled up 156 yards running the rock including two touchdowns before creating one of the great head shaking GIFs on CFL Twitter in the dying moments.
Without CFL football in 2020 the Bombers were spared of their Toronto trek, but in 2021 the then undefeated Bombers once again found themselves struggling to maintain their identity in Toronto. That time it was the Argos’ running tandem of D.J. Foster and John White IV, who compiled 22 carries for 125 yards while then-Argos’ QB Nick Arbuckle won the day with 23 of 32 passes completed for 310 yards and a passing and a rushing touchdown.
Both seasons, Winnipeg finished as the class of the CFL. In 2021 they held that claim to fame from wire to wire with the game in Toronto being their only real blip on the radar.
To start this season Winnipeg is once again in the driver’s seat, albeit with a pair of Western foes matching them step for step so far as BC and Calgary maintain their undefeated records heading into Week 5.
The Bombers have known for two years they would get every team’s best punch. They’ve weathered the majority of them seamlessly but there is something about this trip to Toronto for the Blue and Gold that has raised my eyebrow over the last couple seasons. All of which is to wonder whether or not that same curiosity will reappear tonight when Zach Collaros and his new favourite target Greg Ellingson will step between the painted lines of a field they knew well as members of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
The real storyline though, is Harris. One of the greatest Canadian running backs to ever put a CFL helmet on spent five years with his hometown Bombers, totalling 5,402 rushing yards, 2,584 receiving yards and 35 touchdowns. He practised against Bombers’ star middle linebacker Adam Bighill in both BC and Winnipeg, and understands the tendencies of defensive coordinator Richie Hall as well as any player in the CFL.
As a prominent member of the Bombers’ last two losses in Toronto and fuelled by the unceremonious farewell bid by Winnipeg this off-season, you have to believe Harris will be looking to cause some distress for his old side.
When Harris is healthy early in this season, it’s obvious that head coach Ryan Dinwiddie wants the offence to flow through No. 33. Whatever the over/under on Harris carries is set tonight, I’d take the plus side with the belief that Harris and the Argos will be looking to make a physical statement against a Winnipeg team fresh off three straight wins over Ontario opponents.
A win tonight for the Argos wouldn’t just follow the trend of recent years; it would help erase the embarrassment of a 44-3 beatdown in BC that saw McLeod Bethel-Thompson removed — to his severe displeasure — from the ball game in favour of Chad Kelly.
Storylines are everywhere in this one, so settle in and watch it all unfold on Monday Night Football, CFL style.