Big-game savvy Bombers, wide-eyed Alouettes arrive in Hamilton for Grey Cup clash

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HAMILTON — It’s hard to imagine two more different teams getting off airplanes an hour apart to begin preparations for a championship game.

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Arriving first at a private hangar near Hamilton airport were the Montreal Alouettes, who can best be described as upstarts, having shocked the Canadian football world with a dominant win over the heavily favoured Toronto Argonauts in the Eastern Final.

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The Alouettes were wide-eyed, many of them having never experienced the Grey Cup spectacle before. They walked around the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum taking photos of one another and the whole team posed for a group shot under a Lancaster bomber, a plane that was used by the squadron that gave the Alouettes their name.

Touching down shortly later were the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, pulling into town for their fourth straight Grey Cup appearance and bringing a wealth — make that a fortune’s worth — of big-game experience, including a win over the B.C. Lions in the Western Final.

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There’s no doubt the Bombers have been there, done that. This seems more like a business trip than an experience for the Bombers, a good 40 of whom have played in championship games in recent years. Many of the Bombers didn’t even enter the museum, leaving that just for people with media responsibilities.

“We’re blessed to be able to try this again,” Bombers safety Brandon Alexander said. “Most of us being able to be here, we know what’s going on and I will say we’re definitely a little more focused, but we’re happy to be able to showcase our abilities again and put it on the line for our guys one more time.”

The two sides will meet in the 110th Grey Cup on Sunday at Tim Hortons Field, with Winnipeg looking to win its third championship in four years, and Montreal its first in 13 years.

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The Alouettes are coming off a 38-17 win over the Argos last Saturday and not many people even expected them to be in this position, but they’ve won seven straight games by riding a ferocious defence and dynamic special teams and they think they can keep the run going.

There’s reverence for the Bombers, of course, but also a great deal of belief in themselves.

“There have been a lot of battles against that opponent, which is an incredibly gifted football team,” said Alouettes quarterback Cody Fajardo, who lost Western Finals against the Bombers in 2019 and 2021 when he was with the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

“They’re a very veteran bunch and a team that’s going to be in their fourth straight Grey Cup, which is truly incredible when you think about. They’re a team that’s been there, done it, and I think that’s a competitive advantage for them.

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“But the advantage for us is the excitement of going to our first Grey Cup together as a team.”

Only a handful of Alouettes players have played in Grey Cups before and even fewer have been on the winning side.

You won’t hear the Bombers talking about themselves as favourites, however, and the Alouettes don’t want to wear the underdog label.

“I don’t use the word underdog,” Alouettes coach Jason Maas said. “I feel very confident in what we are and what we do. We can go in and beat anybody and it’s because of how hard we work, how much we’ve come together and how much we’ve learned along the way.”

He then added a line that shows just how much of a challenge lies ahead.

“You’re going to have to be as good as you’ve ever been, and great, to beat them,” Maas said.

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Sticking to that theme was Alouettes safety Marc-Antoine Dequoy, who will go up against Winnipeg’s Brady Oliveira for the CFL’s Most Outstanding Canadian award this week.

“We didn’t come here to be an underdog and say ‘We won the East and now the season is done,’ ” Dequoy said. “That’s not our mentality. Our mentality is the job is not done. We didn’t do all this work just to have an appearance in the Grey Cup and finish at that.”

The regular season results do not suggest the Alouettes are primed for an upset. They lost 17-3 to the Bombers in Montreal on July 1, and 47-17 in Winnipeg on Aug. 25.

The Als scored only six offensive points in the two games, with 14 more coming on defensive touchdowns.

However, they did a number on the Argonauts last weekend, taking down a 16-2 team in its own stadium and dethroning the Grey Cup champions.

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“Personally, to see the clock hit zero and know that I’ll be going to my first Grey Cup as a starting quarterback meant a lot,” Fajardo said.

“It was emotional for sure. This team is very special to me and being given a second opportunity in professional sports doesn’t come very often. I got that from coach Maas and (general manager) Danny Maciocia. This team, from the first day of training camp, we talked about winning the Grey Cup, so why not us?”

There are a few reasons why not them.

Like Winnipeg quarterback Zach Collaros, for instance. Or how about league rushing leader Oliveira, the best offensive line in the league, stellar defensive players like Willie Jefferson and Jackson Jeffcoat, or Hall of Fame coach in Mike O’Shea?

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That being said, the Bombers had a very similar team last year and lost to the Argos in the championship game. They certainly don’t want a repeat of that.

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The Bombers don’t seem to lack any respect for what the Alouettes bring to the table.

“They’re a very good defence, they attack you from everywhere,” Collaros said. “(Defensive co-ordinator) Noel Thorpe’s always got a very good game plan for whatever team he’s facing and I have so much respect for him. Those guys are playing hard, they’re always physical and they’re fast.

“It’s going to be a great challenge.”

As for that business-like approach from the Bombers? It doesn’t mean they aren’t going to soak up the experience one more time.

“We don’t want to make this routine,” O’Shea said. “We want to treat it like it’s urgent. The vets have chosen to stay in the moment. They have these other experiences they can draw upon and use, but they can still treat it as their first one. They can still have that burn.”

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