No walk in the park

JIM BENDER -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 8:42 AM ET

REGINA -- Just don't get too giddy over the fact that the Green Sliders will be missing at least eight starters for tonight's annual Labour Day Classic on Taylor Field.

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers, you see, somehow managed to resuscitate an 0-8 franchise in Hamilton last week, just when a win could have moved them into a tie for third in the West. Instead of kicking the 'Cats when they were down, the mystifying Blue fell into a last-place tie with these Roughriders.

There is little room for error for either team in the last half of the current CFL campaign. Tonight's Classic is the first of back-to-back encounters between the two clubs and a series sweep could be devastating for the loser. But any sweep starts with a victory tonight.

"It's a little more important for us because they've already beaten us once this year and we need this game to keep the opportunity for winning the season series," veteran Bomber linebacker Ryland Wickman said yesterday. "If we lose this game, we lose the season series, there goes our tie-breaker. That would be the third team we have lost the season series to."

Funny that a member of a 3-7 club would already be calculating playoff formulas. But both Edmonton and Calgary have already taken the season series over Winnipeg so the next two outings should indeed have playoff implications.

"It's a must win," declared veteran Bomber fullback Wade Miller. "Everyone in this locker-room knows the ramifications of this game and we need the win."

But so do the 'Riders, who are on a five-game freefall.

"It seems like forever since we've been here, it's been a must-win for both teams (in the Labour Day Classic)," said Saskatchewan GM Roy Shivers, who bemoaned his squad's rash of injuries to key personnel. "Hopefully, we can come out with the W."

"It's a massive, massive game for us," said Saskatchewan noseguard Scott Schultz. "For us, our nine-game season starts now and we need to fare well over these next nine games and it all starts (today). We need to win the series."

But this game will have more than just playoff implications. It will also be a litmus test for Winnipeg's rebuilding program. And the two-game series could show whether even an injury-ravaged Saskatchewan squad is capable of competing for a top spot in the West again.

But most of all, this is Winnipeg's chance to use the 'Riders as a stepping-stone to a better football life.

"Our best chance for success is to focus on one game at a time and that's what we've done because this game, by itself, is critical," said Bomber head coach Jim Daley.

Then again, the Bombers have yet to either win a game on the road or beat a western opponent.

"This game may be crucial but not the end of the season (for the losing team)," Daley added. "Saskatchewan proved that last year."

The Bombers swept Saskatchewan last season, then watched them make it all the way to the West Final. But we can't see that happening for either side this go-round.

The Bombers already suffered one setback to their development last week and losing tonight's Classic will have many scrutinizing the progress of their rebuilding program. Losing both games to Saskatchewan would be devastating for the club, its fans and yes, its finances.

"Hopefully, we show what kind of character this team has and come out, fight hard and win this game," Wickman said.

If not, the long bus ride home will become an even longer, more uncomfortable trip.


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