Golden games, vol.1: Gaels stun Axewomen in 2015 CIS quarterfinals

An epic, unexpected game from an unforgettable postseason at home

This week The Journal looks back on one of the great games in Queen's women's rugby history.

On Nov. 5, 2015, amidst a clamour of whistles, claps, and cheers from the stands, the starting 15 for the Queen’s women’s rugby team quietly assumed their positions on Nixon field and came face to face with the fiercest competitor in Canadian university rugby: The Acadia Axewomen.

They didn’t stand a chance. At least, they weren’t supposed to.

The matchup marked the quarterfinal of the 2015 CIS women’s rugby Championships—the first game in the Canadian varsity rugby national playoffs. Under ordinary circumstances, Queen’s wouldn’t have been there. Only the eight best teams in the nation qualify for the tournament and the Gaels didn’t rank high enough to make the cut. They were only guaranteed a spot because they were hosting.

While they had a solid regular season that year, winning four of their five games, Queen’s floundered in the OUA playoffs with a 1-2 record, landing them in the fourth spot of the OUA standings, far out of contention for a spot in the CIS Championships.

Acadia on the other hand, was a different story.

Coming off of an impressive 5-1 regular season, they went undefeated in the Atlantic University Sports (AUS) playoffs and hoisted their first divisional trophy after dispatching St. Francis Xavier 34-17.

That was a big deal. Not only was St. FX the reigning AUS divisional champions 17 years running, but they were also the CIS champions from the year before. After beating them in such decisive fashion, it was clear: the Axewomen were the favourites for the 2015 national title.

Enter the quarterfinals.

As was customary for hosts, Queen’s was automatically given entry to the tournament, but their record also seeded them lowest in the championship—and set to face the best team in the country.

Needless to say, after being slated to face the highest-ranked team in the country for their first game in a sudden-death tournament they technically didn’t even qualify for, it didn’t look good for Queen’s.

Fifteen minutes after the first whistle blow, it didn’t look any better.

The Gael’s were down 17-0.

It was almost as if the Axewomen actually had axes with them. They powered across the goal line three consecutive times, dominating Queens’ defence and converting their third try to cement a commanding lead that appeared all but insurmountable.

But over the next 65 minutes, something incredible happened: the Gaels charged back.

After four straight penalty kicks from their captain, Lauren McEwen, and one converted try from flanker Emma Chown, the Gaels threw 24 unanswered points in the stunned faces of the Axewomen and ran out the final minutes on the clock to secure the win.

Go ahead, call it a comeback.

Or, if you want to be a bit wordier, you can also call it the catalyst for one of the best postseason runs in the history of Queen’s rugby.

Not only did the Gaels shatter expectations by upsetting Acadia in the first round, they also kept that same pace for the rest of the tournament. They faced Concordia in the second round, squashed them 27-13, advancing to the championship match against McMaster to put them one win away from a national title.

While Queen’s eventually fell to the Marauders 27-3, they still brought home the silver and achieved something far greater than what anybody—including themselves—expected of them.

To learn more about that historic game against Acadia, The Journal spoke with two members of the 2015 women’s rugby team, Mikela Lehan and Sadie Stephenson.

Both rookies during the 2015 season, the two alumni shared some memorable thoughts and moments from the match, reflecting on the experience and how it shaped their tenure at Queen’s, which only ended last year after the 2019 season.

“I think when we pulled up to that first game, we literally thought, ‘we have nothing left to lose, so we’re leaving it all out on the field,’’’ Stephenson said.

Stephenson played every match in the tournament that year, and one moment in particular still sticks out to her: Lauren McEwen scoring that first penalty kick to put the Gaels on the scoreboard.

“I just remember looking at my teammates and screaming, ‘let’s go!’”

“Once we scored those first points, we just said, ‘alright, let’s show them we have something to prove.’”

Lehan, on the other hand, remembered how prior to the game, one of the assistant coaches approached McEwen and told her to take advantage of any scoring opportunities that presented themselves through kicks. He said that they might add up later on.

“Then when our first points came off of a kick, I remember all of us looking at each other and thinking, ‘Oh, it’s going now.’”

Although the Gaels still have yet to win a national title, in 2019, Lehan and Stephenson helped the team earn their second silver medal at the U Sports championships.

Currently ranked first in the country, there’s hope that Queen’s will hoist that trophy soon enough. But chopping down the Axewomen in 2015? That’s one for the history books.

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