New Regina rugby academy hopes to take kids pro

Rugby is seeing rapid growth in Canada and one Saskatchewan coach is hoping to take kids all the way to the national team.

MacDowell Rugby Academy bridges the gap from minor rugby to nationals

Youth from ages 12-18 are coached on the game for eight weeks. (Contributed by Robin MacDowell.)

Rugby is seeing rapid growth in Canada and one Saskatchewan coach is hoping to take kids all the way to the national team.

Robin MacDowell, who played pro himself as a teen, recently opened the MacDowell Rugby Academy in Regina.

While the game may seem intimidating to some, MacDowell said it's open to anybody.

"The nice thing that I like about rugby is although it gets a bit barbaric on the field, it's such a family culture off the field...there's just such a sense of camaraderie," he said.

Robin MacDowell and business partner Nishant Jain (far left) are bringing youth into the rugby community. (Contributed by Robin MacDowell.)

Like many Canadian kids, MacDowell started out playing hockey, but transitioned into rugby as a teen.

Born and raised on Vancouver Island, which is home to the national training centre, MacDowell said people there play 12 months a year.

The five-foot-eight-inch man may not seem like a typical rugby player, but he pushed on, eventually playing professionally in France and Italy starting at age 18.

"It really got me out of my comfort zone, playing on different fields, playing with guys that don't speak your native tongue...everything was such a learning curve for me and it really opened my eyes as a small town Canadian kid," he said.

MacDowell also played for the University of Victoria, but really wanted to represent Canada.

Although it took seven years, he kept returning to national team trials.

Now, he helps foster the athletic growth of young players who hope to reach that same level some day. Many of them already stand at six-feet-five-inches tall at 15 years of age.

"They look down at me and say, 'Yep. If this little guy did it I'm pretty sure I can do it to,'" MacDowell said.

Robin MacDowell went pro and is now hoping to coach Regina youth to the same level. (Contributed by Robin MacDowell.)

After seeing his success, Regina's Karl Fix urged MacDowell to come visit the city and help introduce rugby sevens to the province of Saskatchewan seven years ago.

"The community kind of worked their way into my heart and I've been here ever since," he said.

When MacDowell arrived in Saskatchewan, he said he saw a lack of facilities, a lack of athletes and a lack of funding for the sport.

He started by approaching the University of Regina. Now, the U of R team is in its sixth year of men's rugby and its fifth year of women's rugby.

"We're the second team outside of Victoria to send two teams to nationals this year," said MacDowell. "The game is actually exploding and Saskatchewan Rugby just won an award for the best rugby province in the country because of the increased population in rugby players across the country."

While some may be thinking about injuries when they think of rugby, MacDowell said it's a lot cleaner than it used to be, especially when it comes to rugby sevens.

"It's clean, it's fast, it's skilful, it's athletic, it's very appealing and you're seeing it explode," he said.

The sport is now in the Olympic Games and kids are starting to have an interest in it at a younger age.  

In the past three years, more than 250 kids aged 4-12 signed up to play in Regina and year after year, kids are graduating from that league.

"We're seeing a huge influx of kids getting to that age but there's nothing to really capture them for our sport because it is a very new sport to Saskatchewan," said MacDowell.

That's when he and business partner Nishant Jain decided to start their own academy, to help bridge the gap for youth aged 12-18.

The eight-week long academy is $115, and runs from 12-2 p.m. CST on Sundays at the Regina Rugby Club.

To get more information or to sign up, visit the academy website.

With files from CBC Radio's Afternoon Edition