Late November and early December seemed like an especially active stretch for Robin MacDowell, but for him, it was like any other portion of 2017.
“It’s been a busy year,” the in-demand rugby coach said upon his return to Saskatchewan after three weeks of international travel.
In that short time alone, the Cowichan Valley-raised MacDowell made history as coach of the Mexico’s women’s sevens team and guided a North American all-star squad — featuring current Cowichan standout Peyton Eagar — at the Dubai Sevens U18 tournament.
Now living in Saskatchewan, where he runs his own rugby academy, MacDowell spent much of the year jetting back and forth to Mexico, and the commitment paid off when that country earned its first-ever berth in the Rugby World Cup Sevens women’s tournament.
“If you want something bad enough, you’ve got to go all in,” he said.
Las Serpientes, as the Mexican women’s side is known, had won the North American women’s sevens championship in 2014, when it wasn’t a World Cup qualifier, and have finished among the top three each of the last five years. By winning gold this year, at the North American tournament they hosted, the team reached new heights. Mexico had never before qualified for a World Cup in men’s or women’s, sevens or XVs.
“It’s life-changing for [the players],” MacDowell said. “And eye-opening for people across the country. They’re not a rugby superpower, but success breeds success.”
Beset by injuries, the Mexican team lost seven starters in the last month of preparations, but found a way to persevere.
“We basically won the competition with our second and third team,” MacDowell explained. “We have a depth chart of 30 or 40 and we had to go deep down the list to qualify.”
At the two-day tournament, which began on Nov. 25, Mexico won their first game against the Dominican Republic. They held a lead in their next match, against French Guiana, but ended up losing. That defeat only served to galvanize the squad.
“I feel that because of how we lost that second game, and how they responded as a team, that helped us win,” MacDowell suggested.
They bounced back in their third game to beat a bigger, stronger and faster Jamaican team 22-7, then surged to victories the next day over Bermuda, Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago. French Guiana ended up with two losses to Mexico’s one, meaning Las Serpientes qualified for the 2018 World Cup in San Francisco in July, the Hong Kong Sevens this spring, and the Central American and Caribbean Games, also in July.
“For me as a coach it was rewarding, but for the players, it was life-changing,” MacDowell stated. “That’s what I’m most proud of.”
The next step is a quick rebuild in the lead-up to the World Cup. MacDowell plans to open the squad up to 60 players again, then whittle that down to a roster of 20 through camps in January, February and March. He will hold a final training camp in the Cowichan Valley just prior to the World Cup, with sessions for local rugby players.
MacDowell has few illusions about winning a tournament that will also feature rugby powerhouses like 2016 Olympic medallists Australia, New Zealand and Canada, but Mexico won’t be there just for fun, either.
“We’ll be looking to upset a few teams,” he said. “It would be a huge accomplishment to win one or two games. We want to use it to set up for the Central American and Caribbean Games.”
Mexico won bronze at the Central American and Caribbean Games in 2014, and the goal is to win gold in 2018.
MacDowell is sometimes shocked to think of how far he has come.
“I’m just a small-town Cowichan Valley kid who went from the Cowichan Rugby Football Club to leading a country to the World Cup,” he remarked. “I follow the same ethics I learned in the Valley.”
From the World Cup qualifier, MacDowell went almost directly to the United Arab Emirates where he helped coach the U19 North American Barbarian selects team — which included Peyton Eagar — at the Dubai Sevens, along with Cam Wilton, a former Brentwood student who also played with the CRFC.
The Barbarians won their pool, but lost in the first round of playoffs to the Westville Gryphons, a top school from South Africa and only team that beat them in pool play.
Eagar, a product of both the CRFC and Cowichan Secondary School, was one of the Barbarians’ top players in Dubai, scoring a couple of tries and making an impression on MacDowell.
“He’s a total Cowichan kid,” the coach said. “He’s humble, tough as nails, and he outworks everybody. I liked everything about him on and off the field. It was good to get together with Peyton, especially overseas, and to see how he performed on that stage.”
In the spring, MacDowell will coach the Canadian U18 men’s team at the Las Vegas Sevens, which will serve as a qualifier for the Youth Olympic Games in October. He also coached the national U18 side to a fourth-place finish at the Youth Commonwealth Games in the Bahamas last summer. That team included Rhys Tudor-Jones from Shawnigan Lake, who is “on the radar” for the Vegas team as well.
It’s all part of a long, rewarding process for MacDowell.
“This year was the year of preparation,” he said. “Next year is the year of competition.”