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If it’s a men’s rugby final, it must be Queen’s or Western

Queen¹s university rugby head coach Pete Huigenbos speaks to the team following a practice on Nixon field in Kingston, Ont., on Thursday Nov. 7, 2012.

Lars Hagberg/Lars Hagberg

It is the greatest Canadian university sports rivalry you've probably never heard of.

On Sunday, the Queen's Gaels and Western Ontario Mustangs will battle for the Ontario men's university rugby championship for the seventh time in 16 years. For 27 consecutive years, one of the two schools has appeared in the final, usually eliminating their rival to get there.

Players have a saying: Rugby is a hooligan's game played by gentlemen. But the historic Queen's-UWO grudge match isn't exactly genteel.

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"When it's gold versus purple, its pretty nasty out there," said UWO forward Dave Jacks.

The schools are separated by 450 kilometres of Ontario highways, and on Sunday, hundreds of alumni in their 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s will pile into chartered buses bound for Kingston. UWO alumni decked out in their old purple sweaters will circle the turf on Nixon Field in the heart of the Queen's campus, standing four or five deep beside former Gaels dressed in red, gold and blue.

The youngest, mostly members of the school's development squads, will have memorized the bios of the opposing teams lineup, and the names of their mothers.

"I'm sure somebody's going to say, 'Oh, Dave Jacks, When are you going to retire? Hows the arthritis?'" said Jacks, who is 25.

Younger brothers of past stars are easy targets. "They'll be like: how does it feel to live in your brother's shadow?" he said.

Two fights broke out in the 2007 championship. During the matchup two years later, fists flew in the stands. For players on the pitch, the electric atmosphere and all the grey heads will be a reminder of what's at stake.

"A win is as much a win for the first team as every other guy who's ever played in the club," said Alistair Clark, part of a winning Gaels team in 2009.

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Rugby rivalries in Ontario are slightly different from others in Canadian sport. The base is small enough that by the time players get to university, most have played against each other in high school or club teams, if not been teammates on provincial or national squads.

Familiarity may (technically) make the rivalry friendly, but it can make chirping endemic.

Robert Pritchard, 70, who played for the Gaels in the early 1960s, said one of the "fairly repeatable" songs that was sung in back then, went like this:

Why was he born so beautiful / Why was he born at all / He's no bloody use to anybody / He's no bloody use at all.

In the late 1990s, the Gaels mocked the Mustangs for their "frosted tips." (The regrettable '90s hair style.)

Modern trash talking mostly happens online, on Facebook pages or e-mails. Fair or not, both schools have a reputation of being a bit of a haven for rich kids. But apparently blind to their own similarities, many of the digs have to do with the opposing squad being a bunch of rich, spoiled, lazy snobs, or too dumb to make it into a real ivy-league school.

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"The correspondences I've been getting from alumni you wouldn't print anyhow," said Western head coach Steve Thomas, a British import who's been made well aware of the score.

According to tradition, the Gaels will play host to Western at the local university bar after the game, although the teams won't necessarily mingle.

"There's a lot of cheap shots back and forth," said Graeme Whyte, a current Queen's player.

"I'd be careful not to sit at the other team's table; the loyalty was definitely with Queen's," said Clarke, now a member of Canada's national development squad.

Most people graduate from university and get on with their lives, but Ontario rugby players seem to keep one toe on the pitch. After a university degree's worth of intense, 10-week OUA rugby seasons, fraternities are forged that endure much longer than that.

Alumni keep tabs on old teammates, scouring the Internet for scores and updates on the teams' newest stars. One Queen's alumni, Royal Bank CEO Gordon Nixon, donated a million dollars to build the new field where the championship will be played.

As the current Gaels team takes the walk from the locker rooms, past the limestone buildings and onto the field, there will be more than a few alumni reminiscing about how it felt to hear the click of their own studs on the pavement.

"I guess the older we get, the better we were," said Rick Powers, a Queen's alumnus who played in the late 1970s and 1980s.

Earlier in the regular season, UWO beat Queen's in a close-fought match. But its best player is injured, and it finished the season ranked third behind No. 1-ranked Queens.

Told that his team is the rumoured underdog in Sunday's matchup, Jacks said: "I figure that that's just propaganda that somehow made its way from Kingston."

Editor's Note: An earlier online version of this story gave an incorrect spelling of Graeme Whyte's name. This online version has been corrected.

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