Cowichan Secondary School principal Darcy Hoff receives a MacDowell Rugby ball from Pat Kay during an info session for the new rugby academy. (Kevin Rothbauer/Citizen)

Cowichan Secondary School principal Darcy Hoff receives a MacDowell Rugby ball from Pat Kay during an info session for the new rugby academy. (Kevin Rothbauer/Citizen)

Vancouver Island high school unveils rugby academy

Athletes from B.C., across Canada and around the world will benefit from world-class coaching

A new partnership between one of the Cowichan Valley’s most accomplished rugby figures and the Cowichan Valley School District will bring a top-end rugby academy to the Cowichan Valley starting with the 2021-22 school year.

The school district is working together with Robin MacDowell to establish the MacDowell Rugby Academy at Cowichan Secondary School starting next fall, and MacDowell hopes it will affirm the Cowichan Valley as a focal point of the sport in Canada, while providing students with the skills they need in rugby, academics and community leadership.

MacDowell Rugby’s motto is “Dream. Believe. Succeed.” which MacDowell elaborated on in the press release announcing the academy.

“The MacDowell Rugby team strongly identifies with the idea of developing an athlete to reach a potential that would otherwise be untapped,” he explained. “Their main goal for our aspiring athletes is to dream big, [and] believe in themselves, which will ultimately help them succeed in rugby and life!”

Open to students in grades 10-12, the new academy will have 30 dedicated spots for athletes from the Cowichan Valley, 15 for athletes from across Canada, and another 15 for international students. Athletes from Japan, Barbados and the U.S. have already expressed interest.

Originally from Duncan, MacDowell has spent most of his life in rugby. He moved to Europe at the age of 19 to play professional rugby in France and Italy, then returned to Canada to play for the national team on the World Rugby Sevens Series.

Since his playing career ended, MacDowell has coached at all levels of the sport, including grassroots, age grade, club, university and provincial programs. He started his academy in Saskatchewan, where it continues to flourish even as he has returned to the Cowichan Valley to help grow the game at home.

On the international level, MacDowell guided the Mexican women’s team to its first-ever appearance at the Rugby World Cup Sevens in 2018. He has also worked with Rugby Canada in the 2017 Youth Commonwealth Games in the Bahamas, the 2018 Youth Olympic Qualifying Champions in Las Vegas and the World University Games in Naples, Italy. Most recently he has worked with Rugby Canada identifying talent for the women’s national team program, and with the national development academy in Langford.

Pat Kay, a Cow High grad who has spent the last several years playing for the national men’s sevens team and is likely to represent Canada at the Olympics in Tokyo, will serve as a guest coach at the academy when his playing schedule permits.

“I’m jealous that this wasn’t around when I was 16 or 17,” he said. “It gives more kids more opportunities, whether it’s the national team or university, and it gives them more opportunities to continue rugby into their older years.”

Letting young athletes, especially in small communities, know what their opportunities are is important to MacDowell.

“My driving force was days like today, when I could talk to students who are bigger or stronger or who have more potential than me, but didn’t know what was out there,” he told a group of Cow High students at an information session on Feb. 17.

With his years of playing and coaching at so many levels, MacDowell has a vast network of connections, and has already established partnerships between his academy and more than 30 universities across Canada and the U.S., and six Major League Rugby teams.

MacDowell expressed his thanks to several SD79 officials, including International Student Program principal Liz Hollands-Gamble for leading the initiative for the Cowichan Valley along with vice principal Kevin O’Donnell and Cowichan Secondary principal Darcy Hoff.

Hollands-Gamble has been an inspiration of MacDowell’s for many years.

“Liz was my Phys Ed teacher at Mount Prevost Middle School and was the first person that lit a fire inside me and told me I could do anything I put my heart into,” he related. “Her impact on me at that time was life changing. As she moves on to retirement later this spring I am thankful that her last legacy was to inspire me to realize this dream to bring a full-time academy to my hometown.”

The Board of Education fully endorsed MacDowell’s academy.

“As a board we are committed to providing the highest quality of educational experiences to our students,” board chair Candace Spilsbury said. “Offering a world-class rugby academy for students in the valley and beyond truly fits that mandate.”

Cowichan Secondary principal Darcy Hoff is excited to see the academy come to his school.

“For us, this is a really good opportunity for students to pursue a passion while attending their home school,” he said. “And having international students and students from across Canada interested in doing something at our school, hopefully that will help [Cowichan Valley students] see how neat this experience is.”

MacDowell played for the Cowichan Rugby Football Club growing up, and that organization has thrown its support behind the new academy as well. Club president Angie Gudmundseth noted that she has known MacDowell since he played junior rugby, and has seen what the sport has done for him.

“We are so excited for this opportunity Robin will bring to the community, young athletes, and the Cowichan Rugby Club,” Gudmundseth said. “The athletes involved will benefit from Robin’s theories, and will be exposed to our beloved sport’s culture, a culture that offers a lifelong positive, meaningful attitude towards all aspects of a productive life. The club is looking forward to the partnership with Robin’s program, and will provide all it can in continuing to support our youth.”

Cow High boys rugby coach Tom Fogarty urged his athletes to consider signing up for the academy.

“The level of coaching you’re going to get is unmatched, especially at a public school,” he said. “It’s a game-changer.”

For more information about registration for the MacDowell Rugby Academy, email robin@ macdowellrugby.ca

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