Owen’s smile fills the screen and says it all: he’s worked hard, and he knows it. He’s pleased with Coach Robin’s praise.

Fifteen minutes later the call erupts with laughter. Coach has applauded – while also gently chiding – talented Sevens player Jake Thiel’s public speaking skills. Jake’s ability to speak at length is as good as his ability to run at length with ball in hand. Still in all, Coach affirms it was a great pep-talk, and everyone is stoked over Jake’s involvement with the online ‘Skills Camp.’ 

The laughter subsides and Coach gets back to business. I scroll through the attendees – they are all concentrating, hanging on every word. Some are even taking notes. 

Sure, Robin MacDowell has a wicked sense of humour. He’s extremely fast on the uptake and he uses it regularly to engage his players – of any age. But he’s also got that gift. The gift to hold the room. Even an online one. 

He knows what to say to ignite players to want to do more, do better, go longer, get stronger. They want to do it for him. They want him to be proud of them. And he is.

I’ve been part of Coach Robin MacDowell’s MacDowell Rugby Skills online “camp” for the past two months and I’ve sat in on most of the Tuesday night “team meeting” virtual calls, where the players get feedback, a chance to ask questions, and top-notch advice from experts. Robin has recruited former Canada Sevens player-turned-trainer Trevor Harrison’s company Athlete Health First S&C. Harrison, along with Corey Bickert and Logan Koch, have worked with elite athletes in the NBA, among others. 

There are also current Sevens stars involved with the online camp. There’s the aforementioned funny guy Jake Thiel, as well as other Canadian Internationals Pat Kay and Kayla Moleschi, Argentinian athlete Ariana Boriani, and Mexican International Sevens captain Isabella Burgos. The kids on the call realize how fortunate they are to be in such esteemed company.

Everyone on the call – between 35 and 50 players on average, ranging in age from 12-20 – is there because they want to learn how to be better rugby players. They want to do the drills, all the drills, as often as needed. Bravely, they post their videos for all of us to see. They thank whichever coach offers constructive advice with genuine gratitude. It’s amazing to witness.

I observe it all and it dawns on me that this motley group of girls, boys, men, and women from basically all over the world would not have come together if not for the necessity of social distancing during the Covid-19 pandemic. It also occurs to me that it wouldn’t have happened at all if Robin wasn’t constantly thinking on his feet and ready to help any player in any way he is able. 

Ryland Gibb, a Fifteens and Sevens player from Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, has been coached by MacDowell since 2018 at the University of Regina. He has also been involved in some of MacDowell’s Next Gen teams, including one I managed at the Vancouver 7s invitational tournament in 2019. Being on the ground with MacDowell for an entire weekend was the best kind of education as to how his mind ticks. 

This is a coach who gets what he wants with positivity, a sentiment echoed by Gibb. He says: “I think Robin’s modern approach to coaching is beneficial to everyone he coaches. There’s no yelling or cussing – it is task focussed through quality repetition. He takes everything seriously, but players are never afraid to ask questions about anything. He’s there to make them better.” Gibb is one to watch, and MacDowell recognized this two years ago. He keeps Ryland in mind whenever he’s building a team.

MacDowell is undeniably one of Canada’s most accessible coaches. As Rugby Canada’s Head of Talent Identification for the Women’s National Program, his social media feeds are chock full of inspirational messages and calls out to the heroes of the game. Whether they be the Women’s Seven’s team in recollection of their bronze medal at the 2016 Olympics, a player overcoming an injury, a team celebrating their 75th anniversary, or one of his former students of the game doing good, his social media is a positive place. 

MacDowell is always holding someone else up, always cheering on the next guy, and always ready to lend a hand in any way possible. 

So, when the pandemic hit, training camps were cancelled, and everyone was sent home, Robin sprang into action quickly. He says: “When all this went down so abruptly, I had a number of athletes, parents, and coaches reach out to me for advice, drills, and help with skills development within the first few days. As the numbers grew over that first week, I implemented the same model that I used in the past with Rugby México to support athletes from a distance – with collective sharing and weekly calls. The group has now grown to well over 100 athletes, parents, and coaches from Canada, USA, Mexico, and Argentina; all sharing, caring, learning, and most importantly supporting each other.” MacDowell stops to consider the enormity of his reach. He smiles. “To be honest, it’s been a lot of fun and it’s kept me motivated to keep evolving as a coach during these times,” he says. He’s not kidding. I imagine him sleeping with the whistle around his neck.

Of his partnership with MacDowell, most recently on the online academy project, Trevor Harrison says: “Working with Robin has been an amazing experience over the years and is one of the major highlights of my professional career. While his coaching and skill development is some of the best in the world, he also finds a way to make sure each person believes they can achieve anything. He has a huge impact on anyone that is fortunate enough to know him.”

This is a sentiment echoed time and time again by those who have been privileged enough to learn the trade from MacDowell.

But – just when you thought Coach MacDowell had fully occupied the forced down-time necessitated by the pandemic, there were a few other irons in the fire that he decided to explore now that he’s basically stuck at home along with the rest of us. Enter his long-planned podcast: The Rugby Hive. 

The seed for the pod was planted years ago, but there was never time to make it a reality until recently. MacDowell explains: “I reached out to a great rugby colleague and current world rugby commentator [former USA International player Dallen Stanford] to partner with the endeavour. He is a class guy who can engage any audience with his incredible one-liners and rugby insights.” Both have been fortunate to travel the world in recent years, meeting players and the people behind the scenes as well. “Connecting with so many fascinating rugby legends week after week, we felt this would be a great avenue to share their journeys to the top while at the same time inspiring the next generation of dreamers into believers.” 

The Rugby Hive is currently in production and is set to go live by June. They’ve already recorded conversations with more than twenty legendary athletes and coaches. MacDowell quotes The Hive’s intro: “Every legend has a story. The Rugby Hive is here to share it! Welcome to the hive.”

It’s not enough that MacDowell is living the dream after so much time of plying his coaching trade. He’s also working closely with Gilbert Canada and is grateful to them for all their support and for supplying training equipment for the videos he posts to instruct all his future stars-in-the-making. He’s also thankful to Ædelhard for supporting all his programs, and as our first elite athlete ambassador, he is offering his expertise to help us support grassroots teams and players. 

Anyone who doesn’t know Robin MacDowell, should. Most likely you will by the end of the self-isolation period with all the projects he has on the go. Just wait until you see the list of players he and Stanford have spoken to, a veritable who’s-who of the international game. There are sure to be some fantastic conversations. A spoiler to help you look forward to the premier of The Rugby Hive: imagine both Dave Moonlight and cousin John Moonlight, genuine Canadian rugby stars, on the same show. 

Whether you already know of Coach Robin MacDowell or not, keep your eye out in the next couple of years. MacDowell’s star is on the rise. 

As Jake Thiel says, “It’s always awesome working with Robin. His passion for rugby is infectious and it really shines through when he’s working with people. I enjoy working with him because he lets you coach the way you want, really gives you the reins. What he’s been doing for kids across Canada – and really across North America is incredible. Spreading his love for rugby to every city and every kid, no matter how small or out of the way you are, Robin makes it his mission to help you if you want it. I think Canadian rugby is better having a man like Robin helping, trying to spread his love for rugby across the nation.” 

There can be no better praise for a beloved and highly respected coach than that. 

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