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Rugby star grows the game with Indigenous youth

Phil Mack is recognized for more than just his performances on the ruby field

By Adam McQueen , in Feature story , on October 25, 2018 Tags:

Phil Mack’s rugby resume speaks for itself. He is a two-time Pan American gold medalist, the first Canadian player to appear in 50 HSBC World Sevens Series tournaments, and is the current captain of the Canadian national rugby team.

Now, his accomplishments in the sport are being celebrated in the new Indigenous Sport Gallery at the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame, an exhibit dedicated to the successes of Indigenous athletes across the province.

But Mack, who is a member of the Toquaht First Nation, is recognized for more than just his performances on the field. The exhibit also highlights the work he does to support Indigenous youth through his organization Thunder Rugby.

“I think it is only natural to start giving back and trying to help out where you can,” said Mack, who also won the inaugural Major League Rugby campaign as player-coach of the Seattle Seawolves in July.

“Anyone involved in rugby understands that is the nature of the game.”

Thunder Rugby runs free camps throughout B.C. to reduce financial barriers to participation and encourages Indigenous youth to try the sport.

As one of the most iconic figures in Canadian rugby, Mack’s reputation has been instrumental to Thunder Rugby’s success, explained the club’s manager John Lyall.

“I think it’s great anytime we give our youth role models to look up to,” said Lyall.

“Phil is the living embodiment of that. When we go into communities you can feel the energy they get being around Phil … he’s got a rockstar charisma to him.”

Mack said among his proudest moments was meeting a group of brothers who came to one of his camps and fell in love with the sport.

“I don’t think they have missed a practice in four years,” Mack said of the now longtime Thunder Rugby participants, the Sam brothers.

“We showed them rugby and they really started enjoying it. When I spoke to their teachers in Esquimalt, they said it has made a huge difference for them.”

The ripple effect

Thunder Rugby camp in action.

Mack has drawn in men and women, young and old, by emphasizing a cultural component to the program. The values of rugby and Indigenous culture often overlap.

“We sang and danced together and were gifted a Thunderbird mask from one of the nations, which watches over the field and our players,” said former player Meagan Wilson, recounting her favourite memory from her first Thunder camp.

The success of Thunder Rugby inspired her to create an equivalent rugby program in her home province of Ontario: Iroquois Roots Rugby.

I saw firsthand what a program like this could do for youth in sport, as well as where rugby can take them,” she said.

Mack’s program has seen success in many forms, with players going on to join national and university teams.

He said just getting people on the field is a success in his mind.  

“The biggest takeaway is the lasting effect it may have on young kids coming through that are in some pretty desperate places at times,” said Mack. “I think sport can be an incredible vehicle to help propel people out of that.”