By: Karen Gasbarino
Canadian rugby supporters have been familiar with the name Jamie Mackenzie for the better part of the last decade. He’s woven in and out of the Canadian rugby scene the way he weaves in and out of traffic on the pitch in his role as scrum-half.
Jamie is the slightly younger brother of Phil Mackenzie, himself a former international and professional player; first in the UK with Sale Sharks, then in San Diego with the ill-fated ProRugby league (which lasted one year then folded with much fanfare). Little could anyone predict that Jamie would follow Phil into professional rugby – right here at home.
ProRugby may not have lasted, but the attempt resulted in a group of investors and rugby folk taking the valuable lessons that ProRugby taught; we’re a month off winding down the hugely successful and well-received second season of the Major League Rugby league. And the league’s enjoying expansion this season with two newly minted teams – Rugby United New York and Toronto Arrows Rugby Club – taking the pitch. Both teams are exceeding expectations in their inaugural year, and Jamie is proud of his contributions as an Arrow.
photo courtesy Jeff Chan
Mackenzie’s story is a slow burn to success. He’s been to two world cups and hopes to be in Japan for Rugby World Cup this Fall. He played in the England Championship for Esher at the same time Phil was there, an experience Jamie looks back on with pride and fondness. He’s played in the Canadian Rugby Championships for the Ontario Blues, and he’s been in and out of contention to play for Canada in various capacities over the last decade.
Mackenzie has not been a solid match-day fixture to the Canada roster for his entire career due to his periodical sabbaticals from the kit. His most recent time away from National duty was to focus on his fitness and getting match-ready for his ultimate goal of RWC 2019. The bonus result of all the graft he put in was the Toronto signing.
With both contention for Canada and the Arrows in the offing, I thought it was time supporters learn from Mackenzie himself how long the road has been and how he’s fought to get exactly where he wants to be in this very important World Cup year.
Having just turned 30, you are experiencing a resurgence in a rugby career that seemed to stall or slow down for a period of time. Did you expect to be approached by the Toronto Arrows? Did you actively pursue them, or did they come to you?
It’s scary to hear you say 30! It was more of a deliberate slowdown. I was plagued with some bad injuries and made some decisions based on family, career, and some other factors. The most important thing for me is that I’m more in love with the game then I have ever been.
I set the goal of being involved in the repechage tournament back in January  when I decided to deal with some old injuries and get back into rugby. I achieved that goal and realized that if I wanted to make a run at the World Cup, I would need to be playing top level rugby. During the repechage, I reached out to the Arrows. I have had a great relationship with the management and coaches because of my time with the Ontario Blues, and I think the deal was signed within three days of me reaching out. They were the first and only team I talked to because I really wanted to be a part of the first Canadian professional rugby team.
Glad to also see the amount of action you had in the ARC. Is there anything else that contributes to the fact that you’re in the best shape of your career?
I only got a handful of minutes at the repechage last Fall, as the team found a winning formula and stuck to it. I knew my work in between games at training would be very important moving forward. It’s hard to be in a situation where you know you might not get a lot of game time, so I made sure to do everything well when I did get a chance to get on the pitch. That definitely helped me put my hand up for the ARC. That being said, it’s a lot easier to be successful individually when the whole squad is doing well. We finally found our groove and won 6 on the trot, which is crucial in a World Cup year.
I moved out to Langford last September to train with the team at the COE [Centre of Excellence]. Our Strength and Conditioning and Physiotherapy teams did such amazing jobs getting everyone ready. Being in an environment like that really allows you to push yourself and it helped me to get in great shape while taking care of my body.
I also have my brother and founder of the @LeanSquad [the aforementioned Phil] to thank for helping me get in shape before I made the move out to Langford. His positive and motivating attitude helped to get me into the gym, and his workouts helped me get back in shape.
photo courtesy Jeff Chan.
Is your ultimate goal for 2019 World Cup? Not a lot of people know this will be your third World Cup if you make an appearance. Thoughts around that?
All my sights are set on the 2019 World Cup. It’s a goal I set 18 months ago, and I couldn’t be more excited. Some of the guys joke that I come out of retirement for World Cups and I understand where they’re coming from.
Starting the game against Italy in the last World Cup was probably my fondest rugby memory to date. The thrill of stepping out onto the field in front of 45,000+ people is addictive. Playing with my brother while my parents and grandparents watched – plus the honour of representing your country at the highest level – is one of the most amazing things. I’m really looking forward to a big year that hopefully results in a plane ticket to Japan!
You have remained an active member of Rugby Canada since 2010 but have had periods where you did not appear on the roster. Can you tell me what the factors were that kept you off? Was it by choice or was it a wealth of talent at scrum-half? If it was the competition, how did that motivate you? Was it hard to motivate yourself?
After the 2011 World Cup I did another year at Esher before I decided to go back to UVic [University of Victoria] to finish my Undergrad. I managed to do that then ran into some injury problems (a hip surgery in 2014). After that I was just able to get healthy for the 2015 World Cup. After the 2015 World Cup, I decided to focus on my career and got a “real” job in Vancouver before doing the 2016 June tests and suffering a serious back injury. Now that my back injury is behind me (no pun intended), I’m focusing everything I have on rugby.
That being said, when I made the decision to get back into it, I was well aware of the wealth of talent at 9. The likes of Phil Mack, Gordie McRorie, and some younger guys who are on their way up (including fellow Arrows’ teammates) definitely helped to motivate me. It was hard at first to motivate myself as injuries kept derailing my plans, but once I got that sorted, it has been full steam ahead.
What was your time like at Esher? Phil was there at the same time. Can you share some impressions?
That was an awesome time in my life. I was able to play professional rugby with my brother and live in Southwest London – it was kind of a dream come true. Having my older brother to show me the ropes was pretty special. The rugby was great, and I definitely learned a lot which is paying dividends now.
photo courtesy Jose Lagman
What do you see happening this season within the MLR and how it’s benefiting players here in Canada, aside from the obvious additional play time in a professional [organized] setting?
It’s hard to say.
I have been thinking about it from the standpoint of our Arrows team – what we are trying to achieve in our inaugural season. We are setting some pretty high goals and its really exciting to see them being reached. As for the league, I think the fan base is continuing to grow. The MLR has done a great job positioning themselves for success by making rugby accessible to the masses with regard to TV deals etc.
I picture the Arrows being similar to the Pumas in super 15. We want to be Canada’s team. A place where Canadian talent can go and thrive and eventually be a part of the Canadian national team. It could act as an excellent pathway to the Men’s National Team.
How has it been playing for the Arrows this MLR season? What was it like to come home after all that time away?
First of all, it was great that the Arrows and Canadian National team coaches could work together to allow me to go to the ARC. I think this says a lot about the depth that the Arrows team has – being able to let a large group of guys represent their national team while still putting out an excellent team in the MLR.
Then, our home opener (after 8 games away) was really something special. Seeing 3,000+ people come out to York to support us was amazing. I really didn’t know what to expect and I think that was awesome. Now we are moving our games to Lamport [in downtown Toronto], and I think this is another exciting opportunity to grow the game and the Arrows brand.
What is the key to the Arrows success?
Training has been great and hyper competitive – again, our depth is awesome. With regard to our backs, the environment that we are training in is excellent. Competition for spots is hyper-competitive and every week 5+ excellent players are being left off the roster.
How does the team push forward to the final four games of the season?
We are now in the business end of the season with a lot of work to do. We are in control of our own destiny and if we can win the next few games in a very busy schedule, we will set ourselves up to really make a playoff push. As a team, we will have to rely on our depth (especially with 3 games in 7 days coming up) to help us make that playoff push. The first three-quarters of the season have been great and now we are just really excited to get on a roll and see what we can really accomplish.
Any advice for young players from someone who should really be celebrated for your “sticktoitiveness”? I really think continuing to put your hand up the way you have is so amazing.
I think goal-setting is huge. Set a realistic goal and write down the steps to achieve that. When you do achieve it, don’t be complacent. Continue to grow and keep setting goals. And like you said…. stick with it.
We spoke at the CRC final in Lindsay, September 2013. Give me a snapshot of then to now…. are you where you’d hoped you would be?
That seems like forever ago! I’d say I am where I had hoped I would be. Two World Cups under my belt and the possibility to go to a third is pretty awesome, not to mention the Arrows….
When you aren’t playing, I see that you dabble in contracting. Is that an actual career goal or just something you do here and there?
That was one of the things that allowed me to get back into rugby. I’m my own boss and create my own schedule which gave me the time to train and do my injury rehab. I’m trying to set myself up for life after rugby and it is something that I’m passionate about.
I originally moved back home from Vancouver to Toronto to spend more time with my family, and this has also enabled me to do exactly that. It’s really the best of all worlds for me right now.
I believe that this team and league has put itself in a position to succeed and this will only bolster the growth of rugby and the Canadian National Team as well. I couldn’t be happier being a part of the inaugural session with the Arrows. There is still a ton of work to do but I believe that we have the group that can get it done.