Training for World Cup in Regina 'like a dream come true' for Mexican women's rugby team

Regina's Robin MacDowell, who coaches the Mexican National Women's rugby sevens team, has brought the team to train in Regina in preparation for their World Cup competition in July.

Regina coach Robin MacDowell is leading Mexico's national women's rugby team to World Cup in July

The Mexican national women's rugby team arrived in Saskatchewan earlier this week to train for the upcoming World Cup. Top row, from left: Robin MacDowell, Nicole Gebert, Fernanda Carrillo, Denise Roy, Michelle Farah Chalita, Stephanie Gummel, Taylor Gerein, Samantha Langford. Bottom row, from left: Jeska Barre, Zoe Tuyu, Sara, Jordan Eberle, Mikayla Waller, Yazmin Ramla, Almita Jimenez. Front: Madison Moore. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

A Regina man's passion for coaching rugby has taken him all the way to Mexico — and now he's back in his hometown, along with the Mexican national women's rugby team.

Robin MacDowell, who coaches the team, has brought them to Regina for training ahead of the Rugby World Cup Sevens in San Francisco in July.

"For these Mexican women here to get a taste of that Prairie cooking, a taste of that Prairie love and landscape is just a wonderful experience," MacDowell said.

"And for my young kids I coach every week, these women are going to train alongside them.… All these young girls in Saskatchewan are going to train and play with them and learn from them, and then watch them play live at the World Cup."

MacDowell started playing rugby as a teenager, following in the footsteps of his uncles. On an international trip, he met a Mexican-born Canadian who asked for his help with the Mexican national team.

He's been helping coach the team since and took over as head coach a year and a half ago.

Robin MacDowell started playing rugby as a teenager after being 'a good Canadian kid' playing hockey and baseball, he says. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

Their first camp was in Regina in 2014. Now, the team is back to train with the women's teams in the province to prepare for the World Cup in July.

"Living in Saskatchewan and coaching in Mexico City, people in Saskatchewan kind of go, like, 'You're coaching who, what, where, when?'" he said.

"Everybody kind of calls me a crazy coach but if you want something bad enough, you manage your life to make it happen."

They have this sense of  family, so everything they do, they do for each other.- Robin MacDowell

MacDowell said he doesn't mind the travel. "But yeah, it's a lot of travel and you kind of get off the plane and you got 30 athletes sitting there waiting for you. I couldn't ask for a better life."

Zoe Tuyu started playing rugby at age 11. She's been playing on the Mexican national team since 2016.

"The place that I train, it's too warm. I'm from Cancun," Tuyu said.

She said she's glad to come to Canada to train as rugby is more established as a sport here.

The Canadian team, she said, "is one of the top of the world and playing here is like a dream come true."

The Mexican team is being billeted by Regina residents. Michelle Farah Chalita, back right, is staying with Moore family, including Madison and Mercer. They're seen here with Zoe Tuyu, left. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

The team plays rugby sevens — a version of the game designed to be faster-paced than the traditional version. Each team fields seven players instead of 15.

Even with the smaller team, though, the players say finding suitable space to train at home can be a challenge.

"[In Mexico] we train probably in a 50 metre [by] 20 metre [field]. It's not a big field," said Michelle Farah Chalita. She's been playing rugby for seven years with the team.

"We don't have many fields and the ones we have, they're for soccer, they don't really lend them for rugby."

Besides the facilities, she said they're grateful for the Regina families billeting players.

"We're very happy and grateful to have all the families," she said. "And being able to practise with people that know, that have a higher level than we do … in Mexico. So it is an honour."

Team's success 'actually changing lives'

"When we qualified for the rugby sevens World Cup last November in Mexico City, it was the greatest moment of my life," MacDowell said, adding it was the first World Cup where a Mexican team qualified.

He said when they started, the team didn't have funding or a lot of preparation, and often had little to no family support. Many players were new to the game.

"The result of that win and that qualification is now, hundreds of girls have registered to play rugby across Mexico," he said.

"In Canada, when we're successful in sport it makes us feel good, it's good for our ego. But down there, it's actually changing lives.

The first practice for members of the Mexican national women's rugby sevens team in Canada was May 15 in Regina. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

"They have this sense of family, so everything they do, they do for each other," MacDowell said.

"What it means to them is that anybody in Mexico can do anything.… It's very very empowering because [typically] women don't have the same opportunity in Mexico as they do in the rest of North America."

The Rugby World Cup Sevens tournament runs in San Francisco from July 20-22. Mexico plays their first tournament game against New Zealand on July 20.

The Canadian women's team will open their tournament against Brazil.

With files from CBC Saskatchewan's Morning Edition