Canadian Sports Rivalries – Western Mustangs Vs Queen’s Gaels

Its November 30th, 2021, and it’s the day of the Yates Cup final between the best two collegiate football teams in Ontario. The nationally-ranked second-best team in Canada Western Mustangs, and the nationally-ranked third-best team in Canada, Queen’s Gaels. Both teams have been by far the best in Ontario this season and for most of the history of Canadian collegiate football, the two sides have been powerhouses in the province, creating the perfect conditions for a rivalry. Yates Cups, Dunsmore Cups, Vanier Cups and even Grey Cups are all part of the history of this rivalry. A rivalry built on winning. This is the story of the rivalry between Western and Queen’s.

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We start with Queen’s University. Queen’s was founded in Kingston Ontario in 1841. Known initially as Queen’s College at Kingston until 1912, Queen’s established a football team very early on in 1882 and found success almost immediately.

Queen’s were founding members of the Ontario Rugby Football Union (ORFU) and were Ontario champions in 1893 and 1894. Both times Queen’s advanced to the Dominion Football Championship, the predecessor to the Grey Cup, and Queen’s won the championship in 1883, earning the right to be called the best football team in Canada! Soon they would begin playing in the Canadian Intercollegiate Rugby Football Union (CIRFU) in 1897, the first ever football league in Canada dedicated to the University level.

Despite playing university teams, Queen’s were still able to compete with Canada’s professional teams. The 1920’s was a golden era for Queen’s who had star players in their squad such as Red Batsone and Frank “Pep” Leadley who would go to be Canadian Football hall of famers. Queens collegiate football’s biggest prize in Ontario, the Yates Cup six times.

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Not content there, they reached three consecutive Grey Cup finals from 1922-1924 where they competed against professional teams, most notably the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Queen’s won Canadian Football’s biggest prize three years in a row, cementing them as not only one of the best collegiate teams of all times, but one of the best football teams of all time regardless of status. For the beginning of the 1929 season, Queen’s would travel to London to face a team who were new to the CIRFU…The Western Mustangs.

Frank “Pep” Leadlay (left) and Harry Batstone were two of the stars of the great Queen’s teams that won three consecutive Grey Cups beginning in 1922. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Bulmer)

The Western Mustangs are the collegiate football team for the London-based institution, the University of Western Ontario. Commonly known as Western, the university was founded in 1878, thirty-seven years after the establishment of Queen’s. They began playing in the CIRFU in 1929 with Queen’s being their first-ever opponent at that level. Despite losing their inaugural game 25-2, it wouldn’t take long for the Mustangs to establish themselves as a college football powerhouse?

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In 1931, just two seasons after their debut season the Mustangs had the best record in the CIRFU and were awarded their first ever Yates Cup, dislodging Queen’s who had won it in the two previous seasons. Queen’s would wrestle the title back in 1934 and Queen’s and Western would slowly begin to dominate Ontario college football. From 1930-1959, two sides combined for seventeen out of a possible twenty-four Yates Cup (the trophy game was postponed during WW2). During this time in 1947, Queen’s were given the nickname the Golden Gaels to coincide with their new gold-colored uniforms, today the football team is referred to as the Queen’s Gaels.

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By 1965, college teams could no longer compete with professional teams, so a new national trophy was created called the Vainer Cup, giving the Gaels and Mustangs the opportunity to now compete against for the title to be the best collegiate team in Canada. The Mustangs struggled in the sixties, to this day it remains the only decade since the 1930’s where they failed to win the Yates Cup. Meanwhile the Gaels were one on college footballs strongest teams. From 1961-1970, they were crowned Yates Cup winners six times and were not satisfied there. They reached their first ever Vanier Cup in 1968, and defeated the Wilfred Laurier Golden Hawks 42-14 to win their first ever Vanier Cup!

Queen’s Gaels 1968 Vanier Cup winning team

In 1970, the two sides were now in the Ontario Ontario-Quebec Athletic Association and the rivalry for Yates Cup glory was back on. Western successfully rebounded from a difficult decade by reaching the 1971 Yates Cup final, where they captured their first provincial championship since 1959! Western then made it all the way to the Vanier Cup that year and won a close contest with the Alberta Golden Bears 15-14 to bring Canadian college football’s biggest prize back to London for the first time. If the sixties belonged to the Gaels, the early to mid-seventies for sure belonged to the Purple and White Westerns.

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Western won the Yates Cup again in 1974 and 1976, and cemented both wins again with winning the Vanier Cup in 1974 and 1976, overtaking the Gaels in terms of Vainer Cups won. Queen’s were still competitive, and came storming back at the end of the decade winning the Yates Cup in 1977, although funnily enough Western also won the Yates Cup that year, from 1974-1978, the Yates Cup was awarded equally to the winner of the OQAA Western and Eastern divisions. Western however would go onto win the Vainer Cup in 1977, cementing themselves as the team still to beat in the conference.

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Queen’s would pick themselves up to win the Yates Cup again in 1978, and reached their first Vanier Cup final in ten years against UBC, going on to win their second Vanier Cup. In 1979, both teams would be on a collision course for that year’s Yates Cup as for the first time ever, the Gaels and Mustangs met in the Yates Cup final. The game was played in front of 9,500 fans at Western’s J.W. Little Memorial Stadium and Western went on to win the big game between the two 32-14 to win the 1979 Yates Cup.

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This game would also mark the end of an era, after this season Western and Queen’s were separated into two different conferences, with Western being in the Ontario Universities Athletics Association (OUAA) and Queen’s staying in the OQAA, but would now no longer be eligible to compete for the Yates Cup. This opened the door for Western to dominate the OUAA with eleven Yates Cup wins from 1980-1998, even winning the Vainer Cup twice in that period in 1989 and 1994.

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Meanwhile, during that same spell, Queen’s won the Quebec equivalent of the Yates Cup, the Dunsmore Cup seven times, and won a Vainer Cup of their own in 1992. In 2001, Canadian college football was realigned, and Queen’s were omitted from the new Ontario University Athletics (OUA) conference, reuniting them with Western after a twenty-two year absence.

In 1994, the Western Mustangs defeated the Saskatchewan Huskies 50-40 in double-overtime, setting records as both the highest scoring game (90) and most total yardage in a game (1395).

After a two-decade span, the Gaels and Mustangs made up for lost time quickly in their rivalry for OUA supremacy. They finished second and third in the OUA in 2002 with Queen’s coming out on top in the regular season by just a two-point margin setting the stage for an OUA semi-finals tie between the two, their first playoff matchup in twenty-three years.

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The Gaels came out in top, defeating the Mustangs 55-20 to reach that years Yates Cup final. Queen’s followed it up with another strong season in 2003 again finishing second in the OUA, three points ahead of fourth place Western. But Queen’s tailed off in 2004 and 05, missing out on the playoffs both times whilst Western were building a nationally competitive team. In 2007, Western and Queen’s again met in the playoffs, this time at the quarter-final stage. Despite beating Western 20 – 26 earlier in the year and finishing above them in the standings, the Mustangs upset the Gaels 27-19 on their way to their first Yates Cup final win since 1998.

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A year later, Western lost to Queen’s in the regular season, but they rebounded to reach the 2008 Vanier Cup final, their first Vainer Cup final since 1995. Although they lost, the signs were showing that Western were a force, and once again reached the Yates Cup final in 2009. Their opponent…was the Queen’s Gaels. The Gaels defeated the Mustangs 27-26 in the regular season, which proved to be vital as Queen’s finished one win above Western in the standings, meaning the Yates Cup would be played at Queen’s Richardson Stadium.

In front of a crowd of 7,253, the teams battled it out in a high scoring game where Gaels quarterback Danny Brannagan put up 515 passing yards and out duelled Western QB Michael Faulds who himself had 509 yards to win the game 43-39. It was the Gaels first Yates Cup final win since 1978, and their first conference championship since 1998 en route to a Vanier Cup final appearance. After trailing Calgary by eighteen points at halftime, the Gaels rallied to win the game 33-31 and recording the biggest comeback in Vanier Cup history to become the first team to win a Vanier Cup in four separate decades!

Running back Marty Gordon stiff-arms away the challenge of Western corner Jamie Symianick during the 2009 Yates Cup win over the Mustangs.
 

Going into the 2010s, Queen’s needed to move on from their star quarterback Danny Brannagan who graduated after 2009. They also held a strong 5-1 record over Western since 2006, but the Mustangs came firing back in 2010. They recorded their first regular season win against Queen’s since 2005 on their way to their third Vanier Cup win in the last four seasons. The following season though would see Queen’s put in their most dominating performance against Western since the 2001 realignment, despite Western finishing first in the OUA, and reaching the Yates Cup final, the Gaels dismantled the Mustangs in a blowout 37-0 victory.

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Queen’s followed it up with an 18-11 win in 2012, meaning that Queen’s had won seven of the last nine games between the two. But in 2013, the Mustangs had the perfect opportunity to flip the narrative, as the two teams met in the 2013 Yates Cup final. Queen’s were 7-1 in 2013, but thanks to a 50-31 loss against Western, they finished second behind the 8-0 Mustangs, meaning the game would be played at Western Alumni Stadium in London. Behind a 252 passing yards and three touchdowns performance from QB Will Finch, and 128 yards and two touchdowns from Yates Cup MVP wide receiver Matt Uren, Western defeated Queen’s 51-22 to win their thirtieth Yates Cup.

Mustangs receiver Matt Uren made a circus catch in the end zone near the end of the second quarter, extending Western’s lead to 24-5.
 

This would spark a decline in the Gaels’ fortunes, they would have only one winning season from 2014-2019, failing to reach the playoffs in four of six seasons. To add insult to injury, Queen’s lost to Western in eight consecutive games! Meanwhile in London, Western reached the 2017 Vanier Cup final where they would face the Canadian collegiate powerhouse, Laval Rouge et Or, a rematch of Western’s last Vanier Cup game in 2008. While they lost in 2008, this time round quarterback Chris Merchant lead the Mustangs to a 39-17 win, marking the first time since 1994 that Western had been collegiate champions of Canada! They followed up this success with another Yates Cup win in 2018, and a Yates Cup final appearance in 2019.

Western Mustangs celebrate their 2017 Vanier Cup final win over Laval Rouge et Orr

After the 2020 season was cancelled due to the pandemic, Queen’s and Western returned to action in 2021 in a realigned OUA, with the Gaels being in the OUA East division, and the Mustangs in the West. After years in decline, the Gaels were back in 2021!

Queen’s won the East division with a 6-0 record, meanwhile Western won the West with a 5-1 record, setting up a Yates Cup final between the two and cementing the two as the best teams in Ontario. Queen’s and Western have been utterly dominant in the history of Ontario college football. In total the two sides have combined for an incredible fifty-six Yates Cups, seven Dunsmore Cups (courtesy of Queen’s time in the OQAA) and twelve Vanier Cups, all before even including the four Grey Cups/Dominion Football Championships won by Queen’s.

Western and Queen’s face off at the line of scrimmage (Gazette Staff / GAZETTE)

In the latest playoff edition of the rivalry, the 2021 Yates Cup final played at Richardson Memorial Stadium in Kingston, Western flexed their recent domination over Queen’s in the fixture. They won the game convincingly by a 29-0 margin to win their thirty-third Yates Cup, putting them ten ahead of Queen’s (but just three ahead in total conference championships).

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Western would then go on to win their eighth Vainer Cup that season against Saskatchewan, putting them on the Canadian College football summit once more. But history has shown this has been a rivalry of flux, and it’s surely only a matter of time before the Gaels lay a glove on Western again in the battle for Ontario supremacy. After all, Western Mustangs versus Queen’s Gaels is a rivalry that has dominated the landscape of Ontario college football for a long time, and looks set to continue to be one of Canada’s best sports rivalries!


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