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Written by: Chris Perrotte
If you’re a fan of 80’s cartoons, then you know to what animated series I’m referring to. And yeah, I probably just aged myself. Said series was the first thing that came to mind when I saw the name Thunder. But I’m not talking about the ThunderCats, rather I’m referring to a First Nations Rugby Club known fondly to the community as Thunder.
Thunder is the name used to represent this team both on and off the pitch. The name has very significant meaning. Thunder is short for Thunderbirds. The Thunderbird among the Aboriginal People is a supernatural bird with origins from the west coast. This awesome bird has great speed and is very powerful.
These two qualities are likened to the characteristics of rugby. If you ever watch a rugby match, you will witness the power come from within each player as they use their core strength to get that rugby ball past their opponents and over the goal line. Players also utilize speed to accomplish the task of gaining a try.
The First Nations Thunder organization was formed almost five years ago by Mark Bryant, John Lyall, and Phil Mack, intensely popular member of the Canadian Rugby squad who has represented his country in both 7s and 15s on countless occasions over the course of the last decade.
One of the great things about Thunder is how they’ve incorporated their own ground rules to instil the characteristics that every player representing the name should adhere to both on and off the pitch. Some of Thunder Rugby’s ideals are about community and family, working as a team and respecting your teammates as well as your opponents, and learning to deal with difficult situations, including outside of the game.
“Rugby is a very rough sport. You have a lot of contact, a lot of injury. Sevens is often a game that’s won by the skin of your teeth,” says Hunter Grant, 18. “You can go through a hard game, sometimes a dirty game, and if you can at the end of the game pat your teammates on the back and shake the other team’s hand, I think that can really strengthen your character for the future. It says a lot about your character if you can keep a level head even when you are dealing with someone who is hitting dirty or when you are making mistakes and getting flustered. Not to lash out at your teammates or anything like that.”
Grant, enrolled in the University of Victoria this coming September, has not only been coached by Phil Mack, but has had the opportunity to play alongside him as well.
“It was really inspiring. Phil is one the Rugby Canada greats. He’s definitely made a name for himself in Rugby Canada. Just to be able to play on the field with him - it was kind of surreal,” says Grant.
Playing both 7’s and 15’s, Mack has made 55 international appearances participating in the sport he loves. And teammates such as Brett Beukeboom enjoy playing with him.
“Phil is a great teammate, he is really passionate about playing for his country, and he influences teammates to share that passion,” Beukeboom explains. “He can also be quite jovial, but he knows the appropriate time to crack a joke and the appropriate time to focus on rugby.”
Beukeboom played with Mack on the 2015 Canadian team that went to the Rugby World Cup in England. He’s felt very fortunate to have played alongside the scrum-half.
“I have looked up to Phil for a long time. He is a stalwart in Canadian rugby and I have been lucky enough to play with him for nearly 10 years now,” said Beukeboom.
“During my time spent playing for the University of Victoria, Phil was one of the senior players on the team, and he would offer some rugby advice. But I think the way he leads by example is the most influential impact he has had, not only on me but plenty of other teammates in both 15s and 7s.”
Now, Mack takes his experience and knowledge of the game and teaches young people the game he loves through the First Nations Rugby Club, an idea created in 2012.
“We thought it would be a cool idea [Phil, John Lyall and Mark Bryant] to give Aboriginal youth another avenue for sport. We weren’t too concerned what sport it was but it obviously comes natural for it to be rugby for us,” says Mack.
“We started four years ago by offering open camps and open clinics. There was interest and some incredible athletes have come out if it. So each year we are planning to grow a little bit more and hopefully it starts spreading across the country. Right now there is a team starting in Ontario, there’s one in New Brunswick, and we’re trying to get one off the ground in Saskatchewan. It’s an awesome program and I think there is an untapped resource in our Aboriginal community. Phenomenal athletes – and we’re just trying to offer them another opportunity to play sports, stay active and do something positive.”
John Lyall, Program Director of First Nations Rugby, reflects how he got involved with this program. “I was nearing the end of my playing career and I was talking to Mark Bryant and Phil and it was something we discussed doing and it seemed to be the right time so we said let’s give it a shot.”
The rewards of building the program have been most memorable.
“You see the joy that the kids have and the accolades they get. The fun that they’re having playing the sport and being with other Aboriginal youth. You can say there’s certainly joy in watching that happen,” says Lyall.
“Another good thing is you can see it starting to grow where other groups and organizations are starting to get on board. It’s growing to the point where we don’t have to do everything now. Other organizations are jumping in and want to get involved and see the value in it. The more people helping out the better.”
When it comes to Phil Mack’s involvement in the First Nations program and coaching the next generation, Brett Beukeboom feels the young people will learn a lot from Mack’s experience on the pitch.
“The young people that Phil coaches would gain a tonne of knowledge from him, he has over 40 15s caps and over 50 7s caps, so rugby-wise he can teach them both codes,” Beukeboom says.
“Also, since he has played so many high level games, he can relate to so many different scenarios young players may find themselves in, and guide them in the right decision making process.”
Hunter Grant has learned an invaluable amount under Mack’s leadership.
“He’s a very skilled rugby player. He’s given us a lot of good coaching tips on the field. The main thing I’ve taken away from him is to really savour every moment of this journey,” says Grant.
“You talk to [many] coaches and they played 20 years ago. They’ve been coaching for a while. But Phil is on the borderline right now. He’s still playing, but he’s also started to coach. We listen to him talk about his past experiences. He reinforces that we should savour every moment of this because there are so many good moments we can have with rugby, so many cool experiences.”
Some kids who head out to the club initially may have either never heard of rugby or may be trying it out for the first time. They arrive with some fear of the unknown of the sport.
“It’s a bit intimidating when you’re trying a new sport at any age. Our main focus is to try and make it enjoyable and just have as much fun as possible. If the kids are having fun, then you can start mentioning the technical aspects of the game,” Mack explains.
“The key is getting them moving, having good energy, and just having a good time. If kids are having fun, they will come back.”
The memories created through Rugby happen not only on the field but off the pitch as well. Beukeboom reminisces about what it was like to be Mack’s teammate in both circumstances.
“I really enjoy watching Phil play 15s and am amazed by some of the creativity and natural talent he shows every single time I play with him,” Beukeboom recalls.
“However, I really enjoyed watching Phil play 7s as well. I think the season he was named in the HSBC 7s Dream Team he was probably the best playmaker on the circuit. I remember waking up at some pretty absurd times in the morning to support the Canadian team, and I'd be amazed at some of the plays he was able to pull off.
“Off the field he can be an extremely funny guy, I remember we had to do skits prior to the World Cup in 2015, and he had the team in stitches. I'm afraid I can't go into too much detail about the actual skit though, in order to protect the identities of some of the players and staff!!”
Creating and being a part of this unique atmosphere is what rugby is all about. It’s a familial environment. A young person coming out to try out for our sport shouldn’t be concerned about his or her skill level or body type, as long as you have a willingness to play. Mack agrees wholeheartedly.
“I think that’s definitely true. Some of the young kids I’m coaching are bigger than me already,” Mack says, laughing.
“The safety aspect is huge and I think as coaches that’s got to be a big part of what we do – making sure kids are ready to tackle before they actually start tackling. It’s a big responsibility when you’re teaching newbies the game of rugby, but it is well worth it. Some kids just love the physical bit of the game and that what keeps them coming back.”
Phil himself first fell in love with the game when he started playing at Oak Bay High School in Victoria, British Columbia.
“There was a pretty strong rugby culture and I didn’t know what it was at first. It quickly kind of grew on me. I played soccer growing up, and I thought rugby just offered something a bit different. The physicality of the game caught my attention and I started going from there,” says Mack.
His journey from high school rugby to representing Canada on the big stage was a simple trek to the next level.
“It’s kind of funny almost going full circle. I’m back with the BC Bears now. Growing up you always set goals. I was fortunate enough to make a U18 BC squad. I kept re-evaluating my goals. Once you make one team you want to make the next,” Mack reflects.
I just started climbing the ladder. It was a natural climb. It’s kind of funny right now being back with the provincial BC Team. I feel like I have gone full circle.”
Mack, along with the rest of the Canadian National Team is focused on qualifying for the 2019 Rugby World Cup that will take place in Japan. They failed in their first bid when they faced the USA Eagles back on June 24th and July 1st, losing overall 80 to 44 points in the two-match test. They have a second opportunity to qualify against Uruguay in January and February of 2018. If they lose, there will be no more chances. When it comes to this hurdle, Mack remembers a quote he learned some time ago:
“One of the best coaches I ever had always said it doesn’t really matter what you have done before, it is what’s next,” says Mack.
“The focus is just preparing for Uruguay, making sure we get into the World Cup, and from there we can re-evaluate and set some new goals.”
As we continue to admire Phil Mack and the growing list of accomplishments regarding the goals he’s striving to achieve, we look back to the grassroots level of the game. We look at what he’s doing to motivate and inspire the next generation of Canadian rugby players and its future stars.
“Phil is a legend. We are very fortunate to have someone of his background, representing Canada so many times in 7’s 15’s,” says Lyall.
“The kids really enjoy him. He’s a great coach. He breaks things down for the players. He’s a very humble person. At times a person doesn’t realize the opportunity they’re fortunate to have because Phil so humble. Without Phil, we certainly wouldn’t be where we are. His worldwide name recognition, being an amazing athlete, and his commitment to the program… I wouldn’t know where we would be without him.
“It’s such a fortunate thing to have him involved in the program. Everything just seemed to work out with Phil’s excitement to get involved. Last year we had a team at [Vancouver 7’s]. We had a men’s team with a lot of players that had graduated from our program, and Phil was able to play with them. It was a pretty special moment for the program.”
Yet another memorable moment created by Phil, and yet another bonding experience the young boys and girls of the First Nation Rugby Thunder won’t soon forget. Whether playing, on the sidelines, or just supporting and cheering on their team, the Thunder was given another example of the type of family-like bond that can be formed through this great game of rugby.
As with other teams, the players are almost becoming like brothers and sisters on the pitch. Brett Beukeboom, Mack’s Canadian National teammate, sums it up best:
“There is a unique bond between rugby teammates and it is difficult to explain, but the closest relationship you can compare it to is a family. The team may only get together a couple times every year but when we see each other at the beginning of each tour and we have a chat, we pick up as if we were still playing and training together in Victoria. Not to be cliché, but he can be described as a brother,” says Beukeboom.
“As I've said before, a rugby team is a family, and on the field Phil instils a level of trust. That level of trust can be very influential, because you know as Phil's teammate that he is doing everything he possibly can to help the team win, so you want to play to the best of your ability to return the favour.”
If you ever get a chance to see Phil and members of the First Nations Thunder squad play, listen closely to the chant they say to their opposing team before every match.