Nuu-chah-nulth rugby star promotes his sport for First Nations athletes

By Shayne Morrow, May 26, 2014

Nuu-chah-nulth rugby star Phil Mack was in Port Alberni May 24 to introduce the sport to Nuu-chah-nulth youth. Photo by Shayne Morrow.

Rugby Canada star Phil Mack and his Vancouver Island Thunder youth organization held a skills camp for Nuu-chah-nulth youth on May 24 at the Port Alberni Black Sheep facility.

Mack, a member of Toquaht First Nation, recently completed a grueling season with the national Rugby Sevens squad.

“We played in Las Vegas in February, then we were in New Zealand, Hong Kong and Japan. Then we had the Glasgow Sevens and wrapped it up in London,” he said.

For those whose only impression of rugby is the traditional 15-a-side game, Rugby Sevens is a relatively new innovation. It’s a short, 14-minute game and the focus is on speed, Mack explained.

“You’re covering a lot more ground and you’re getting rid of a lot of the big guys up front, so you’re left with more speedy and agile players. It’s sort of like three-on-three hockey on the same sized rink.”

Rugby Sevens will be included in the 2016 Olympics for the first time. Mack, who is a nephew of the late Toquaht Tyee Ha’wilth Bert Mack, serves as head coach of the Thunder, when available. The team is currently focused on putting together a Girls U-18 squad and Boys U-16 for the upcoming Victoria International Youth Sevens in July, but the overall goal is to attract more First Nations youth to the sport.

“I grew up in Victoria ‘til Grade 4, then we moved up to Whitehorse, Yukon. My mother got a teaching job up there. We came back when I was in Grade 9, and that’s when I started playing rugby.”

Mack said he played all the usual youth sports, but rugby struck a chord within him.

“Once I started playing rugby, I realized I really enjoyed the camaraderie behind it, and I liked the fact that there is a lot more respect paid to officials and coaches and opposition than in a lot of other sports.”

One of the messages he likes to bring to First Nations youth is the inclusiveness of the sport. If you take up the sport of rugby, much more so than most other sports, you are joining an international fraternity.

“Rugby is a global game. So if you go travelling, bring a pair of cleats with you, find a local club and, chances are, you will be welcomed with open arms.”

And it’s not just a boys’ game any more; female rugby has exploded in popularity in many corners of the world. On Saturday, organizers of the camp wrapped up the session early so everyone could attend the final of the B.C. High School Girls Rugby Championship, which was held at Alberni District Secondary School.

The game featured two Thunder players, Samantha Jack (Elgin Park) and Taya Gagnon (Vanier), playing on opposing teams.

Representing Tseshaht First Nation, John Gomez welcomed participants to the camp, and urged the young athletes to adopt the sport.

“Rugby kept me out of trouble when I was in high school,” he added.

Mark Bryant, president of BC Rugby News, has taken an active role in organizing and promoting the Vancouver Island Thunder.

“We’re just starting this year, so we’re trying to identify aboriginal talent in rugby,” he said. “The focus is the Victoria International Sevens tournament. “We’re travelling the Island to find players to be on the teams. The teams haven’t been selected yet.”

Bryant said the spirit of cooperation and sportsmanship in the rugby community is legendary, especially when it comes to helping out fledgling teams. Rugby is a staple at the prestigious Shawnigan Lake School, and they’ve stepped in to help the Thunder take part in the Victoria International.

“They’ve donated a two-day camp, to stay at the facility for two days prior to the tournament, for two teams: 12 girls and 12 boys and coaches, the facilities and overnight accommodation.”

Thunder director John Lyall, who is a member of the Kwa-kwa-ka’wakw First Nations, said the team has received support from rugby organizations across the Island.

“I’d really like to pass along my thanks to the Black Sheep Rugby Club and to Tseshaht First Nation for making this possible,” he said. “It’s amazing. Whenever I go into the different towns, the first thing I get from the rugby community is, ‘How can we help?’”

Lyall said he likes to promote rugby as a game for life. The social networking and friendships are just as important was what takes place on the field, he added.

“I’ve played rugby for a number of years. I’ve played club rugby and at university. I’ve been fortunate to travel the world with rugby. I’ve nowhere near Phil’s accolades, but rugby has really had a positive effect in my life.

“I’ve made lifelong friendships with teammates and opponents. It’s a fraternity throughout the world.”

Lyall said the growing popularity of Rugby Sevens is attracting more young players.

“That’s what we’re going to focus on with the Thunder, because we’re not really looking to start our own team. We’re really looking to put together a ‘supplemental’ team, with players from up and down the Island – both players that are already playing, and brand-new players.”

Out on the field, Mack, along with volunteers from the Black Sheep club, runs the girls and boys through a series of drills, with the emphasis on agility and contact.

In one drill, the ball carrier is required to dance through an obstacle course at speed. Waiting at the end of the course is Mack, holding up a blocker. For these young players, there is visible delight in slamming into a world-class scrum half and knocking him off balance.

That delight works both ways, with Mack beaming each time one of the young prospects launches themselves into the blue-and-yellow blocker.

Mack first represented Canada internationally at the U-19 level in 2003, and the next year, at the U-21 level, before making his Rugby Sevens debut in 2006, at the age of 21.

After completing the Rugby Sevens season, he only gets a brief respite before taking to the field for the Rugby Canada 15-a-side squad.

“In Canada, we don’t have the luxury of having a deep player pool, so a lot of the guys have to do double-duty. When Sevens are over, they flip over and play 15s.”