Phil Mack practices drills with participants in his Thunderbirds skills camp.

Aboriginal rugby star recruiting players

Rugby Canada star Phil Mack and his Vancouver Island Thunder youth organization held a skills camp at the Port Alberni Black Sheep facility

  • Jun. 27, 2014 11:00 a.m.

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

Mack, a member of Toquaht First Nation, recently completed a gruelling 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.”

* By Shayne Morrow, Hashilthsa News

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