Labour of love?

Winnipeg Blue Bombers slotback Milt Stegall takes on Davis Sanchez during CFL action against the...

Winnipeg Blue Bombers slotback Milt Stegall takes on Davis Sanchez during CFL action against the Montreal Alouettes at Canad Inns Stadium July 5, 2007. (Jason Halstead/Sun file photo)

PAUL FRIESEN

, Last Updated: 9:14 AM ET

REGINA -- There's something different about this year's Labour Day tilt between the Blue Bombers and Saskatchewan, and you only had to drop in at Taylor Field yesterday to feel it.

You could read it on the sign a Riders fan held up as Winnipeg players filed by for their final practice before today's kickoff: "Kerry us to the Cup," it read, referencing Saskatchewan quarterback Kerry Joseph.

You saw it on the green-and-white bus that lumbered by, loaded with Rider Priders who may or may not have been loaded themselves: "Grey Cup Champs," it said on the back. "'66, '89, '07."

And you certainly could sense it in the air, along with the smell of stadium hot dogs, as a couple thousand fans turned out to watch their team practice. That's right, practice.

'BUZZ'

"There's a buzz, there's no doubt about it," Bomber GM Brendan Taman observed. "I've never seen a buzz like this before."

That's because there hasn't been one.

The Riders haven't hosted a playoff game in 19 years, back when Taman was still working for them. They've won two Grey Cups in their history, going back some 80 years.

But with a 6-2 record that puts them right up there with the defending champion B.C. Lions in the CFL West, optimism, not wheat, is the No. 1 crop out here.

Wading into this sea of Rider Pride are the Bombers, not needing to apologize in the least for their 5-2-1 mark in the East.

So, to recap, the two franchises that have been CFL flunkies longer than anyone -- 33 years between them without a championship -- are currently at or near the top of their class.

Either the stars are aligning, a blue moon is rising or hell has frozen over.

Or else the football gods are planning one, nasty trick over the next 11 weeks.

In which case, enjoy it while it lasts, Prairie pigskinners.

"It's fun to come here without two third-place teams or fourth-place teams playing each other," Taman said. "It's awesome. It's great for the league. They (the Riders) get overlooked so much. It's like you start every year, 'Well, they're going to finish third, at best.' It looks good on them. It would be great if this was a Grey Cup preview. It really would be."

What's this, a kinship between two of the most bitter rivals in the three-down game, expressed on the eve of the most heated game of the season?

Seems that's exactly what it is: two financially challenged, community-owned teams in two of the league's smaller markets pulling for each other.

And it's not just from a front-office guy who's originally from Saskatchewan.

D-lineman Scott Schultz, a man about as appealing to Bomber fans as a case of ringworm, even revealed a soft spot for his fellow front-runners yesterday.

"They've endured some of the same struggles," Schultz said. "The atmosphere on both teams is very much the pride of being a community-owned team that doesn't have as deep pockets as some. I would love to see them in the Grey Cup."

Egad, has everybody gone mad?

This is supposed to be the weekend that puts the smash -- and the mouth, for that matter -- into smash-mouth football, and it's threatening to turn into a love-in.

At least the crazies in the stands still have their hate-hats on tight.

The Bomber O-line made the mistake of entering Taylor Field during the Riders fan appreciation practice yesterday, drawing a chorus of boos normally reserved for Troy Westwood.

The 300-pounders promptly retreated to the shelter of their locker-room. Hopefully for a handful of ugly pills, so we can get this rivalry going again.

Oh, wait a minute -- it turns out Schultz wasn't completely done when he said he'd love to see the Bombers in the Grey Cup.

"As far as Sunday's game," he added. "I hope they choke."

That's more like it.


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