Robin MacDowell (second from the right) celebrates with Mexico’s national women’s rugby sevens team after winning the North American qualifying tournament for the 2018 World Cup. (Submitted)

Cowichan-raised coach helps Mexico make history

Robin MacDowell caps off a big year with win at World Cup qualifier

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.”

MacDowell was hired as head coach at the start of this year, and immediately instituted a plan with the ultimate goal of qualifying for the World Cup.

“They gave me the autonomy to put things in place that I felt needed to be put in place,” he said of the Mexican Rugby Federation.

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.

“It’s pretty exciting,” MacDowell admitted. “I’m involved in a lot of programs, and the kids were following what we were doing in Mexico. It shows that if you really want to do something, you can.”

Rugby in Mexico has few resources and no development system — “They only have each other,” MacDowell said of the players — so he modeled his program after Fiji, which sent men’s and women’s sevens teams to the 2016 Olympics, with the men’s side winning the country’s first-ever Olympic medal. Players did most of their own fundraising, and relied heavily on self belief.

“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.

Just reaching the World Cup was a huge step, but the journey’s not over yet.

“There’s a lot more work,” MacDowell emphasized. “Job one was geting qualified on a shoestring budget with young players and a lot of injuries. Now we have to get ready for the big show with the best teams in the world.”

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 made seven or eight trips to Mexico over the year, where his team worked out of a training centre built in the 1960s

“It really made me appreciate things in Canada,” he said.

MacDowell’s journey to coaching the Mexican team started when he was watching a Saskatchewan club team, the Howlers, at a match in 2011. The Howlers were losing at halftime to an “out-of-shape American team.” They didn’t have their own coach, so MacDowell went on the field and gave them some pointers. After they came back to win, one of the Howlers players, who happened to be the captain of the Mexican national team, approached him about coaching them. It took some time, but he became a consultant to the team in 2014, eventually working his way up to the head coaching position.

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.”

Another local player, Pat Kay, was also in Dubai with the Canadian senior men’s sevens team, scoring three tries as Canada finished 11th. An alumnus of the national sevens program, MacDowell admitted that Canada, who picked up their first win on the World Rugby Sevens Series in Singapore last spring, had a “rough go” in Dubai, but he sees better things for the team in the near future.

“I’m confident Canada in the long run will be in great shape,” he said. “They’re not peaking quite yet.”

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.”

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