Phil Mack.  – Photo courtesy of Rugby Canada

Phil Mack. – Photo courtesy of Rugby Canada

TORONTO –As soon as the Pan Am Games had officially commenced, Phil Mack and the rest of Canada’s Rugby Sevens team were in the heat of competition—plowing through preliminaries, quarter finals, semis and finally to the gold medal match against Argentina who they disposed of 22-19. Mack, a member of the Toquaht First Nation of B.C’s west coast, scored 5 of those 22 points. He may be the smallest guy on the team, but considering it’s a 12 member team and only four people scored, small is beautiful.

“I try to be as much of a pest as I can” says Mack while relaxing in the cafe of the Athlete’s Village the day after his gold medal performance. “Rugby players come in all shapes and sizes and you always have to have people in the field making decisions.” Mack is alluding to the fact that while rugby might look like a series of pile-ups of players, there’s actually a chess-like quality to the game. It will premiere as an Olympic sport next year in Rio de Janeiro. He says he learned to love the game in high-school in Victoria, B.C. where his family moved when they left their tiny community “of maybe twenty-five people. It’s around forty minutes from Tofino [on Vancouver Island’s west coast] and too small to have a school so my parents moved to the city.”

Mack adds that even though his mother is a big fan, she simply cannot watch him play. “My mom’s at home. She hates watching me play rugby. My sister went over on the weekend and said ‘You want to go for lunch? You know Phil’s playing now.’ She couldn’t handle it—too afraid I’ll get hurt.” By publishing time, Mack will be back in Victoria where he doesn’t just train with the national team, but is the founder and coach of Thunder Rugby, a rugby skills program aimed at Aboriginal youth: http://www.firstnationsrugby.com/

“I started Thunder Rugby two years ago because I wanted to give back to the sport that has given me so much,” says Mack. “Being at the Pan Am Games means I missed my team’s own tournament. It’s a tough balance to play and coach” but it’s so worth it given the results. Mack, local Victoria players and coaches, and national team players host camps for youth. “The message is ‘Do anything you can do outside. I started in soccer but switched to rugby. Get out there and play your sport. As soon as I finished high-school I went into carpentry, but I was getting recognized as a player too.” Because Rugby Sevens is now an Olympic sport, Mack and his teammates are “carded” by Sport Canada, which means they receive monthly funding, much like a salary, and have most of their competition expenses paid for. That’s a good thing because Mack spends much of his time fundraising for Thunder Rugby, as he says neither BC Rugby Union nor Rugby Canada fund the program, though says they help in other ways by allowing players to coach at camps, and posting information. It is pointed out to Mack that, in their spare time, he and other players can hold camps for youth without the permission of their sport governing body. He agrees that is the case. Despite Mack’s great work the 2014-17 Strategic Plan for the BC Rugby Union makes no mention of Thunder Rugby and no mention of any plan to particularly increase First Nation participation in the sport, despite stating “Rugby For All” is a “strategic priority.” Rugby Canada’s Long Term Rugby Development document makes no mention of First Nation or Aboriginal communities or athletes, despite its title, “Community and Country.”

But Mack says he’ll continue his fundraisers and camps anyway with or without financial support from his own sport governing bodies. This past year Meagan Wilson, a rugby player from Six Nations, heard about his program and found a way to participate in training camps in on Vancouver Island. Before she knew it she was able to apply for a sport scholarship to the prestigious private school of Shawnigan Lake where the camp was held. She had to perform academically as well as athletically and rose to the occasion on both front. Wilson looks forward to post-secondary education that includes rugby: http://www.brantnews.com/sports-story/5479262-meagan-wilson-going-where-rugby-will-take-her/

Perhaps Meagan Wilson will be the next national rugby star. If Phil Mack has anything to do with it, she’s already well on her way.