The last year has been difficult in a lot of ways, but a pair of rising rugby stars have made the most of it.
The Cowichan Valley’s own Justin Marinier and Saskatchewan product Carissa Norsten are both relatively new to the sport, and it’s been a long time — well over a year, in Marinier’s case — since they’ve played actual games, but they’ve more than made up for that with tons of valuable training time.
Robin MacDowell, who grew up in the Cowichan Valley before embarking on an international playing and coaching career, has taken both players under his wing, and combined with their own natural talent and drive, they are both on the cusp of the national team program.
“I’ve probably had more one-on-one time with Justin and Carissa than anyone,” MacDowell said. “They’ve taken COVID and made lemonade. Once this is over, they’re going to be locked and loaded. A lot of people will be just kicking off the dust.”
Marinier, who graduated from Cowichan Secondary in 2020, started working with MacDowell in late 2018, after they were connected by Ron Glass, who had been MacDowell’s high school rugby coach and Marinier’s soccer coach.
“Ron has only ever recommended one player to me, and that’s Justin,” MacDowell pointed out.
A longtime soccer player, Marinier made an easy transition into rugby and he started taking it more seriously the next year.
“A lot of my kicking skills transferred into rugby, and athletic skills, agility, stuff like that,” he recalled.
Marinier had little experience in the sport before he met MacDowell, but he put in a ton of work in a short time, and made his first provincial team in 2019. He reminds his coach of another Duncan product who has made a name for himself as a member of the national rugby sevens team.
“Probably outside of Pat Kay, he is the most consistent athlete I’ve worked with as far as his discipline and training,” MacDowell said.
Although Marinier’s playing career has been interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the layoff has actually been beneficial for him. He had shoulder surgery in late 2019, and was preparing for the 2020 high school rugby season when everything was shut down last March. Not going back at that time allowed him to properly recover.
“If I went back in the spring, I probably would have hurt it again,” Marinier said. “This helped me train to my limits without exceeding them. I think it’s been an advantage to me, personally, although it does suck not playing.”
In late 2020, Marinier was invited to train in Langford with the Pacific Pride, Rugby Canada’s high-performance men’s academy team.
“He got to train with the top men in the country at 18 years old,” MacDowell said. “His goal for the next year is to be part of that program full time.”
Marinier is hoping to return to the Pride when they get back on the field in September.
“It shows you how hard it is to get to that level and how hard you have to work,” he said. “It was a great experience. I’ve never done anything like it. Just being at the field and seeing what the atmosphere is like, it’s crazy.”
Playing internationally for Canada is Marinier’s ultimate goal.
“I want to play for the [national] sevens team and go to the Olympics one year,” he said.
Although he is adept at both sevens and XVs, Marinier prefers the version with fewer players, which also happens to be the one played in the Olympics.
“I’m a lot more of an agile and fast player,” he explained. “When I have more open space, it’s easier to do the things I’m good at. Having fewer players plays to my advantage.”
Like Marinier, Norsten only picked up the game a couple of years ago, and never would have guessed at the time that she would be on the cusp of the national program before finishing high school.
“My sister started playing before me and it looked really fun,” Norsten said. “I definitely did not think I would be potentially playing for Canada, but I’m glad that I am. It’s exciting.”
The 17-year-old from a farm outside Waldheim, Saskatchewan, attended a Try Rugby event in Saskatoon, where MacDowell spotted her dominating a touch game that included experienced players. He turned to a player beside him, who he had coached in the past, and asked if she knew anything about her. That girl happened to be Norsten’s older sister.
When MacDowell was asked to coach Saskatchewan’s U18 girls entry at nationals in 2019, he put her on the team and she ended up being their best player, despite never having played an actual game before that.
“I was blown away,” he recalled.
Norsten went on to play at the 2020 sevens nationals, held indoors in Edmonton last February. She was then selected for the Rugby Canada Development Academy team that played some games alongside the 2020 Canada Sevens in Vancouver last March, and was one of the leading try-scorers in that tournament.
She was invited to train full-time with the Development Academy, based at Belmont Secondary in Victoria, starting last September, but that program was scaled back because of the pandemic. MacDowell then reached out to Queen Margaret’s School head of school David Robertson, who is familiar with rugby from his years at Shawnigan Lake School, and he found a spot for her at QMS.
“He and his staff were generous enough to set her up with studying there,” MacDowell said. “It allows her to be out here full-time.”
Norsten trained this fall with the CRFC junior and senior teams and played in a mixed touch league at the club. For the last two months of the year, she was also invited to train with the senior women’s World Cup team at PISE in Victoria every Sunday, along with national team veterans Tyson Beukeboom and Laura Russell, who also play out of the CRFC.
It didn’t take Norsten long to get used to life on Vancouver Island.
“It’s super nice,” she said. “I like it. The weather is nice. You can play rugby all year.”
Before she found rugby, Norsten was one of the top up-and-coming hockey players in Saskatchewan, and owns several age-group records in athletics in her home province. She also played basketball, volleyball and soccer, and ran cross-country. She misses hockey the most, but she did get to play some shinny when she went home for Christmas.
What she likes about rugby is the team aspect that few other sports offer.
“Teamwork is part of the game unlike in any other sport,” she said. “You have to be connected. And I love the speed and pace and contact.”
As with Marinier, Norsten plays both sevens and XVs, but prefers sevens because it is more wide open. Her goal is to play for Canada at the Olympics in 2024 and 2028.
The next step in her career is joining the collegiate ranks at the University of Victoria, where she has accepted a scholarship for next fall.
“It should be fun,” she said. “I’ve met some of the girls on the team at practices. It should be a fun year.”
MacDowell believes the sky is the limit for Norsten.
“For me she’s one of the top one per cent in Canada, in the world, for athletic potential and athletic ability,” he said. “She’s one of the best athletes I’ve ever worked with.”
MacDowell doesn’t take for granted the opportunity to coach young elite athletes.
“It’s a privilege to work with athletes like Justin and Carissa,” he said. “It’s quite special, after 20 years going around the world to come full circle and be back in my hometown, with my home club, working with these kids, who are light years ahead of where I was.”