Phil Mack was originally signed to be a player and assistant coach for the Seatle Seawolves this season, but ended up taking the head coaching job when the predetermined bench boss couldn't get a work visa. (Seattle Seawolves photo)
Phil Mack’s first season of professional rugby had an ideal finish.
Mack, a member of the Toquaht Nation, served as a player/coach for the Seattle Seawolves in the inaugural season of Major League Rugby (MLR).
Mack and his teammates captured the league title defeating Colorado’s Glendale Raptors 23-19 in the championship final, staged July 7 in San Diego, Calif. Seven squads competed in the first season of the MLR. Winning the league crown was not that much of a surprise for Mack.
“I knew we had a good chance,” said Mack, who had relocated to Seattle for the Seawolves’ season but is now back at his home in Victoria. “I looked at the roster we had put together. I knew we would be competitive and that was a goal for us (to win the league).”
The Seawolves had to be considered the underdogs, however, heading into the MLR final. That’s because the Raptors had beaten the Seattle squad in both of their regular season matchups.
Glendale downed the host Seawolves 19-15 on Apr. 28. And then the Raptors registered a convincing 33-11 triumph on their home field on June 16.
Glendale finished atop the MLR’s regular season standings by racking up seven wins in eight matches. The Seawolves placed second with their 6-2 record.
“We didn’t play our best rugby in those games,” Mack said of the two regular-season losses to Glendale. “And we were not fully healthy until the end of the season.”
Mack added the regular season allowed his side to experiment with various lineups.
“We were in a unique situation,” he said. “We were trying to figure out who our best 15 players were.”
Other franchises in the league were the San Diego Legion, Utah Warriors, Texas-based Austin Elite, New Orleans Gold and Houston SaberCats. Mack, a 32-year-old scrum half who since 2009 has also represented Canada on its national team and been a member of the national sevens team since 2006, is thrilled he was able to play professionally on this continent.
“It’s definitely refreshing,” he said. “I didn’t think I’d see a professional rugby league in North America. And to be a part of it is pretty special.”
Prior to suiting up for the Seawolves, Mack had trained with Ospreys, one of the top pro teams in Wales, back in 2014.
Though he did not see any game action with Ospreys, Mack did play four matches with one of its feeder clubs, Neath Rugby Football Club.
Mack also had a few more responsibilities with the Seawolves than he had originally anticipated. Besides agreeing to play for the Seattle team, last fall he also signed on to be an assistant coach with the club. Another Victoria resident, Tony Healy, was hired to be the Seawolves’ head coach. But when team officials found out three weeks before the regular season was to start that Healy’s work visa was denied, Mack was handed the club’s head coaching duties.
“It just changed the scope of my role,” he said. “I had to do a lot more. And it was a lot more stress.”
Despite calling the shots as the team’s coach, Mack was still able to lead on the field as well.
“I was pretty fortunate I was able to get the guys to buy into the system,” he said.
Mack is unsure of how many more years he’ll be able to play a high level of rugby.
“It’s hard to say,” he said. “We’ll see."
Mack is hoping he can return to the Seawolves for their 2019 campaign. Like his teammates, he had been signed to a one-year contract for the 2018 season. He plans to start negotiating for another contract with the Seattle franchise soon.
“More sponsors are starting to come on board in the league,” he said. “So we’ll be looking for some longer contracts with a bit more security.”
The league also is poised for some growth.Mack said MLR officials are keen to expand to a 10-team league for 2019 and so far five potential franchises have expressed interest in joining the circuit.Mack believes league reps will announce which three clubs will be added in the near future.
As for Mack’s immediate plans, he will be getting married this Saturday in Victoria to his fiancée Rebecca. Then in early August he’ll join the national team for a pair of games overseas against two clubs in France’s top rugby league.