Por Mexico: How a Canadian coach helped an unlikely women's rugby 7s team

SAN FRANCISCO — Despite coming from starkly different countries with distinct rugby cultures, Canada's Robin MacDowell and his women's sevens team from Mexico have a shared trait that unites them — perseverance against daunting odds.

MacDowell's squad is one of five men's and women's teams making their Rugby World Cup Sevens debuts in San Francisco, in no small part because of the example set by the 39-year-old from Duncan, B.C.

"I see a lot of them in myself as well and I like being the underdog, I like the challenge and Mexico's definitely full of challenges," MacDowell said. "Something happens to us every day, something happens to our team every day.

"We live on no excuses, we just embrace the fires and we put them out and we fix things. Our girls have zero excuses and they've fought and clawed to get here."

The World Cup is upon us and former national team members Andrea Burk and Phil Mackenzie let us in on who to watch, potential scenarios and who they think will come out on top. 34:37

MacDowell played more than 100 games for Canada's men's sevens team, including at the 2006 Commonwealth Games, but it was an uphill battle to achieve that feat.

"I tried out for Canada [and] for seven years I got cut. Eight times a year for seven years I got dropped, I was too small," said MacDowell, who also runs a rugby academy in Regina and is involved in a plethora of rugby programs in Canada.

"I knew if I didn't persevere, then I would never be able to get through to those future Canadian athletes or those future athletes around the world."

No excuses, no matter the obstacle

MacDowell officially became Mexico's head coach last April. He first learned of the program when he met the team's former captain, Rosie Rivera, while both were in Cuba with a Canadian club following the end of his international career.

"When I took over as head coach, we had about 10, 11 players in the program," MacDowell said. " I basically did two things: I made it not okay for people to let them down because the women's program's always been let down and I made it not okay for Mexico to lose."

"In the past, if Mexico played rugby and they lost, it wasn't a bad thing, it was expected. So I changed the expectation and the culture of the program and we now have over 100 athletes in our high-performance system."

The team is based out of Mexico's Olympic training centre in Mexico City, but the prestigious-sounding name belies the stark reality of their home.

"The field is much like a gravel parking lot to be honest," MacDowell said. "Sometimes the water's hot, sometimes the water's cold, sometimes there's no toilet paper for a few weeks, sometimes there's no towels."

"We just laugh, there's no excuses. We're just so fortunate to be on this journey."

Communication is actually the least of the team's challenges as most of the players speak English. MacDowell, who knows French and Italian and has enough Spanish to get by, sees an advantage to what some might write off as a language barrier.

"The girls actually retain more because they have to focus more," MacDowell said. "If I'm just coaching Canadian kids, they can tune out easier. But they're having to focus extra hard, which is actually helping them digest it."

Before the World Cup, Canadian women's head coach John Tait — whom MacDowell considers a good friend — invited the team to Langford, B.C., to train.

The experience was likely more impactful for Canada's team than it was for Mexico.

"I want you to know how lucky you are," MacDowell told the Canadian women's team. "All my girls have quit their jobs, they've been away, they've been living on the road and we literally have nothing. So please, please eat some humble pie and be very thankful for everything you have."

"John called me up [after] and said, 'My girls needed that.'"

Por Mexico

Mexico's first match in San Francisco is against New Zealand, the defending World Cup champs and inaugural gold medallists from the Rio 2016 Olympics.

To call this match a challenge would be a disservice to the real-life trials and tribulations Las Serpientes have faced just to reach the tournament.

"There was a lot of tragedy that hit Mexico last year and we really used that to fuel us," MacDowell said, singling out a deadly earthquake last September that happened 32 years to the day of the catastrophic quake in 1985.

"We were never paid when I played, and everything we did was for the Maple Leaf. I just said, 'Every time it hurts, every time you got to make a sacrifice, every time you're tired, every time anything, we say por Mexico.'"

Former Canadian sevens player Robin MacDowell, left, looks on as members of the Mexican women’s rugby sevens team train while wearing shirts with the team’s rallying cry of “Por Mexico.” (Supplied by Robin MacDowell)

Por Mexico, which means "for Mexico," became a rallying cry and a fundraising campaign as the team sold thousands of t-shirts and successfully qualified for the tournament.

"A year ago, thinking we would qualify for [the] World Cup was a tall order," current captain Daniela Rosales told World Rugby. "We are working very hard and building to be the best version of ourselves in the World Cup."

Rugby is hardly synonymous with Mexico, whose sporting identity lies in its twin loves of soccer and baseball. The men's sevens team has never qualified for a World Cup and MacDowell said he's already seeing the impact the women's mere presence in San Francisco is having.

"For these women to be these strong, athletic, successful ambassadors of the sport is so powerful in a country like that," MacDowell said, describing Mexico as "still very misogynist as a whole.

"That, for me, is why I do it and I feel so honoured to be a small-town Canadian kid who couldn't play for his country for so long and now I have an opportunity to help many people across another beautiful country believe in themselves."

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