Written By: Mark Janzen
Sitting in the cavernous dining hall of Shawnigan Lake School, site of Canada’s World Cup campaign-launching training camp this past March, Kayla Mack is talking curling.
With house banners hung in the wooden rafters and long tables perfectly parsed within Marion Hall, the independent boarding school that resides just off the southern coast of British Columbia on Vancouver Island feels like Hogwarts. To newcomers, it seems only prudent to take at least one passing glance around the facility in search of the lion of Gryffindor or the snake of Slytherin.
Mack does not. As the unofficial home for Rugby Canada training camps, she and her Canadian teammates have been here before.
Instead, she chooses to discuss brooms and rocks. Situated in the middle of her table, Mack unassumingly holds court and quickly engages her teammates and coaches in a conversation about a sport few on the West Coast of Canada would typically discuss. The conversation picks up – one-by-one everybody seems to have a curling story about his or her grandma or great uncle. A product of Saskatoon, Sask., where curling is comfortably third on the sporting pecking order, behind only hockey and the Saskatchewan Roughriders, it’s not surprising Mack could carry on about frozen pebbling, but the fact she has the table antsy to chime in is why the second-rower is such a valued member of Canada’s engine room.
“She’s an energizer,” says Canadian women’s 15s coach Francois Ratier.
Her contagious energy, on and off the field, and even in the dining hall, has become a key ingredient in the Canadian mix. Not only is she leading in the pack – Mack has started in eight of Canada’s last nine test matches – but her off-field intangibles make her a special commodity.
“She’s a good teammate,” Ratier adds. “She’s always positive and she’s always smiling. And it’s really important to have her on our team.”
With the World Cup kicking off tomorrow in Dublin, Mack, who was part of Canada’s silver medal-winning World Cup side in 2014, will be leaned upon to lead from the forward unit – a role she is all too familiar with and more than happy to embrace.
Montgomery Place is tucked away on the southwestern outskirts of Saskatoon. Following World War II, the largely residential community was established for returning veterans and named in honour of British Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery.
Kayla’s grandfather, John Mack, who was war veteran, arrived in 1968. His name is etched into a stone pillar alongside the 500 or so other veterans who built homes in Montgomery Place between 1946 and 1977. The Mack family has lived there ever since.
Eschewed from the busyness of the city, the Saskatoon suburb was and still is something of an oasis – one checkered with large lots and friendly neighbours.
“I had a great childhood,” says Mack, who attended the same elementary school, Montgomery School, as her father, Dale. “Montgomery has a small town feel. I was able to roam and play and have an exciting childhood.”
With her mom, Theresa, running a daycare program and taking in many of the neighbourhood children after school, Mack was constantly surrounded by a bevy of kids eager to play games and sports – a perfect setting for the burgeoning athlete.
“I think the fact that I always had people around to play with really fostered my love for sports,” says Mack, who grew up involved in a wide variety of sports. “The older kids challenged me to work hard and keep up and that really had an impact on me.”
So began a roller-coaster journey to the top of the women’s rugby world.
Ask almost anyone on Canada’s women’s 15s team and they’ll tell you a similar story about how they got their start in rugby. Most came upon rugby sometime in high school through some odd happenstance and, when they discovered the unique combination of physicality and inclusivity, they quickly fell in love with the sport.
Mack’s tale isn’t much different. A friend dragged her out to the rugby pitch in Grade 10 and while it wasn’t love at first contact, a year later and, under the coaching of former Canadian national team player Tara Eckert, she uncovered her passion for rugby.
“The physicality of it was so much fun, but also the need to work as a team to earn success really appealed to me,” Mack says. “It worked for what I was strong at and that makes a game a lot of fun.”
Joining the Eckert-led Kiwis – a Saskatoon-based club that acted as a feeder system for the Saskatoon Wild Oats Rugby Club – Mack quickly found her way on a rugby field.
“She was a bit of natural,” says Eckert, who was with the women’s 15s program from 2000 to 2011 and also represented Canada at the 2009 Rugby World Cup Sevens. “She had a competitive sense and a growth mindset. She always wanted to get better, so she would work hard and do what you asked her to do.”
While Eckert was impressed early on by a young Mack, at the same time, the rising star from Montgomery Place had found the perfect rugby mentor.
“Tara really inspired me to keep playing and I had a lot of fun with that team,” Mack says. “I learned a lot about the game and fell in love with it. I got a glimpse into (Eckert’s) career at the national level and it really started to inspire me to get there.”
At the time, Eckert was a busy person. She was not only coaching the Kiwis, but she was also teaching at Evan Hardy Collegiate (Mack’s high school), coaching high school basketball and volleyball and keeping up with the Canadian national team’s training program. Part of her rugby-focused workouts included regularly running the beep test – a rigorous exercise designed to test cardiovascular fitness. On a number of occasions, Eckert had the Evan Hardy girls basketball team, which Mack played on and Eckert coached, join her for the testing. The idea was to both test the players fitness and, once they had fatigued, to push and encourage Eckert.
However, one day Mack bested Eckert.
“That might be the moment when I really thought she had potential,” Eckert says. “My ego may have taken a bit of a hit, but it was awesome. I had coached her and she played for the club that I played for, so to see what she was capable of was fantastic.”
Fitness was never an issue for Mack, but beating a Canadian national team player in the beep test was yet a strong signal of what she could become.
Soon enough, Mack’s rugby-playing pedigree earned her a spot on Saskatchewan’s provincial team, which eventually led to her being named to Canada’s U20 roster that competed at the Nations Cup in England in 2009. The tour across the pond was her first taste of international rugby.
Two years later, she earned her first cap with Canada’s senior team in the 2011 Nations Cup in Oakville, Ont., nabbing a starting role against both South Africa and the United States.
Much to the delight of the Canadian crowd in Langford, B.C., Mack snatched the ball from the air off an Irish restart and ran untouched for her first try of weekend. Back for her second stint with Canada’s sevens program, she looked every bit the part of a sevens player, scoring twice to help her team to a convincing win over Ireland in the early stages of the 2016 Canada Sevens event on the World Sevens Series.
Mack was seemingly back. The previous fall, 2015, she had been given the opportunity to return to the sevens program – she had spent the 2011-12 season with the team before being released – to take a crack at making the roster that would represent Canada at the Rio Olympic Games in 2016. Deferring her acceptance into the University of Regina’s nursing program, she took her shot.
Unfortunately for Mack, the triumphant part of her return never came to fruition.
After the completion of the 2015-16 series, Mack learned she wasn’t in the mix to make the Rio roster. For the second time in five years, her sevens career came to a screeching halt.
But, at the same time, the 15s team was once again knocking at her door. While her Olympic dream was dashed, she had a chance rejoin the 15s side just in time for the Women’s Rugby Super Series in the summer of 2016 in Salt Lake City, Utah.
“It’s very difficult to feel the end of one dream or goal closing on you,” Mack says. “But I was so fortunate to have another team to go to and to start looking forward to this World Cup. As soon as one door closed, another one opened and I will always be grateful for that.”
She started all three games in the Super Series, helping Canada make a powerful statement with convincing wins over England (52-17), the USA (33-5) and France (29-10).
In some ways, this was Mack being back home.
The 15s game is where the Saskatchewan product has truly thrived.
Since her first cap in 2011, Mack, when not with the sevens program, became a regular amongst the 15s contingent. At the 2014 World Cup roster, she dressed for all five games of Canada’s historic second-place finish.
“The World Cup was such a fun and surreal experience,” Mack recalls. “It was still so hard, but it was so exciting and we felt so in tune with each other. I almost can’t describe the camaraderie with the team. You would literally do anything that you needed to come out with a win for the girls beside you.”
When Mack was young, she would come home from school to a house full of children. Her two younger brothers, Preston and Kiefer, would be there along with several other kid who were part of Theresa’s daycare program. Returning to her home on 11th Street West gave her joy. This was her happy place – enjoying activities with a variety of neighbourhood kids, be it sports, games or just discovering the unexplored. It’s a description of delight that sounds, well, very Saskatchewan, and very rugby.
“We’re not a huge province, but everyone is here to help each other out,” says Mack, who coached Saskatchewan’s U18 men’s team at the national sevens rugby championship in 2016. “Rugby really is that sport where you need everyone. It gives an opportunity for everyone from every walk of life and every ability to come out and give it a try and add something to a team.
“The values of Saskatchewan and the values of rugby really do align well with each other – helping out your neighbour or accepting someone into your community. I think that’s what Saskatchewan stands for and I think that’s what rugby is like as well.”
It would appear there might be a perfect marriage there between Saskatchewan and rugby. It just might take some time.
Of the 26 players who traveled to New Zealand for Canada’s three-match International Women’s Rugby Series this past June, Mack was the only one from Saskatchewan.
Yet, at the same time, the Saskatchewan Rugby Union was named the provincial union of the year in 2016 by Rugby Canada. With Mack as one of its key ambassadors at the national level, Saskatchewan’s union has worked to develop a strong mini-rugby program for children.
“She is a tremendous role model and represents Saskatchewan very well,” says Jordan Astrope, who is the executive director with the Saskatchewan Rugby Union. “It’s a game-changer for us to have players like Kayla. Being a small, underdeveloped province, anytime we can have an athlete of that caliber and that recognition is definitely a huge asset for us.
“To us, Kayla is one of our sisters. She’s a familiar face at the clubhouse. Everyone knows each other and we’re very small, tight family, which definitely has a Saskatchewan feel.”
For Mack, that family dynamic is not only part of her Montgomery Place roots, but it’s a critical part of Canada’s 15s group, which features a perfectly mixed concoction of personalities. Spend more than a few minutes with Canada’s national side and one gets the sense that this group possesses a bond that might even be unique within the rugby community.
“I’m not even sure I can put my finger on it,” Mack says. “There are just so many strong personalities that work so well together. We have a group of leaders that really foster a healthy environment. We all belong and it’s safe and things are open for discussion and everyone’s opinion is valued. We all know where we stand and what our goals are and we’re all working towards the same thing.”
That, of course, is winning this year’s World Cup – a tall task that will require Mack to be the Mack fans have come to love.
Ratier doesn’t like to use the term “substitute.” Instead, he uses the phrase “impact player.”
At the World Cup in 2014, Mack was an “impact player.” While she came off the bench in all five games, she certainly had a strong influence, most notably scoring a try in a 13-13 tie with eventual champion England in the round robin finale.
This year, Mack will likely be a starter throughout the tournament, which will see Canada (No. 3 in the World Rugby rankings) open its round robin schedule against Hong Kong (No. 23), before dates with Wales (No. 10) and New Zealand (No. 2).
“She’s fit. She’s skilled. And she’s an energizer,” Ratier says. “You can count on her and she will respond. If you challenge her, she will respond. She’s also very skilled. She can pass and catch really well. For a second-row, she has great hands and is very mobile on the field.”
While Canada has a few second and back row options, there’s strong reason to believe Mack and Tyson Beukeboom will form a second row that would be the envy of most teams in the tournament.
From an early age, Mack’s drive to succeed was evident – both in her various sporting spheres and in the classroom, where, throughout high school and university, she was equally as impressive.
“We instilled in her when she was young that if you want to join something, you follow it through to the end,” says her father Dale.
That attitude has been paramount in her rugby career. Despite getting released from the sevens program on two different occasions, she stuck with the sport and this August she’ll be competing against the best 15s teams in the world for the second time in four years.
Mack is part of a veteran Canadian team – one that features as many as 16 returnees from the 2014 roster – that has one goal in mind: to return home with the country’s first ever World Cup title.
And with Mack, fittingly, right in the middle of the pack, she’ll lead the way with that trademarked energetic gusto and ever-present smile – something that’s been part of her Saskatchewan-bred DNA since the first time she ran out for a game of tag in Montgomery Place.
Women's World Cup 2017 kicks off tomorrow. Canada faces Hong Kong. Kayla Mack dons the number 4 shirt for this important match. We know what her goal is. We'll be watching!