If you asked people in Canada where the rugby hotbed existed, there would inevitably be a lively debate as to whether the clear answer is Toronto or Victoria. One is home to Rugby Canada, weather more conducive to year-round play, and an active community; the other is home to a burgeoning provincial league, a professional team in the Toronto Arrows, and growing academies. Both have active university rugby.
But how many engaging in such a debate would argue that the hotbed is actually in Saskatchewan?
As unlikely as it seems, Saskatchewan is where so many exemplary future stars of rugby call home.
From Farm to Sea is how Robin MacDowell – who originally established his MacDowell Rugby Academy in Saskatchewan – characterizes the kids who leave the family farm for an opportunity to further their education on the west coast (or other prestigious locales) and to hopefully one day represent the maple leaf on the international stage.
It’s an actual phenomenon.
Latest in the trend of young players turning in the vast expanse of farmers’ fields for a backdrop of mountains and coastline is Carissa Norsten from Waldheim, Saskatchewan; while older sister Christina Norsten received a scholarship to the Lindenwood University Rugby program in St. Charles Missouri – finessing her skill and preparing to step into some big rugby shoes to represent Canada in the not too distant future – Carissa is on Vancouver Island completing her grade 12 at Queen Margarets School, while training with The Cowichan Rugby Club, as well as working with the Rugby Canada Senior Women's Regional World Cup Group on Sundays.
I’ve spoken in awe of Robin MacDowell’s knack for being able to spot a certain talent, a certain skill that goes beyond fitness and skills to a much deeper understanding of the game.
He can see it in certain players. When it happens, he sticks with them, advises them, and helps them and their family to access the opportunities available to them. He stays with these stars of tomorrow until they succeed.
It’s no different when it comes to Christina and Carissa Norsten.
The Norsten Sisters: Not just one student of rugby in a rugby environment, with an eye toward representing Canada, but two at the same time. Amazing.
They both attended MacDowell Rugby Training sessions in Regina, learning much in what they call “eye opening” sessions, learning techniques and basic ball-handling skills that they would continue to work on and challenge each other with at home.
Christina began playing first, being recommended to the sport in high school Vice Principal Jesse Reis. She represented the province in both 15s and 7s, but enjoyed the faster pace of 7s, especially under the tutelage of former Canada star Kayla Mack, who helped Christina locate and capitalize on the opportunities available to talented players. Then came the Saskatoon Sirens, a junior club based in Saskatoon and Warman, Saskatchewan. They’ve won the North Sask Championship three seasons running, and coach Lauren Whyte credits the Norstens in part for their success.
Whyte offers that the Norstens are some of the hardest workers, naturally gifted rugby players, and elite athletes who constantly strive for improvement. “Christina is a quiet leader on and off the field,” she says, often putting others before herself, and Carissa, newer to the sport, is a “natural talent but never takes any credit for just how good she is.” Neither girl plays like it’s about themselves. “They are two of the most humble, team-first athletes I have ever had the pleasure to coach.”
Sirens Coach Crystal Carter weighs in on Christina, lauding the elder Norsten’s versatility and work rate. She says Christina “always had a great attitude and treated everyone, her teammates, coaches, officials, opponents, and everyone else with the utmost respect. She was an absolute pleasure to coach and her success is very well earned, and not the least bit surprising.”
Fellow Sirens coach Kiera Prior weighs in on both girls, expressing awe over Christina’s versatility, adding that her “ability to retain information and execute it the next play makers her a dream to coach.” Carissa’s speed made her a force for the season she was with the Sirens. “She quickly became a key player for us in the backs,” Prior adds. She’s also proud of the fact that every coach that encounters Carissa has something positive to say, “even more so when we bragged about her being in her first season of rugby.” Overall, she says, they are the kind of players that make you a better coach.
After enjoying her first year of University with the Canada West USport University of Lethbridge Pronghorns competing in both 15s and 7s under Head Coach Neil Langevin. Christina wanted to head to the USA after she heard there would be no competition this fall for USport.
Christina received a scholarship to attend prestigious Lindenwood University, where she is training and playing for the Lions. Lindenwood Women’s Head Coach Billy Nicholas is equally impressed with Christina, calling her a great addition to the program, with “incredibly work rate and a great attitude.”
In fact, it didn’t take Christina long to make her mark, as she scored best in the 40 metre testing, a pace Nicholas is looking forward to seeing in action during game play. He says “we are excited to get going with a full schedule of matches here this Spring and look forward to seeing Christina in black and gold this semester. We are excited to continue to provide a pathway for high level players around the world to come and train and earn a degree and play at the highest level for the collegiate system in the United States.”
Christina Norsten credits Robin MacDowell first and foremost for getting her where she currently is, confidant her skills are top notch. It’s the fact that he’s advised her and then stuck with her that has made all the difference. He has never stopped coaching and advising. “My “man in the corner” is definitely Robin MacDowell”, she says. “He has got my name out there and helped me get to tryouts and start playing for teams not only in different provinces, but now in a different country. He has helped me every step of the way and is one of the most encouraging and inspiring people I’ve met.”
Carissa Norsten – typical of a speedster – loves the fast-paced nature of the sport without breaks, but also finds the community a big draw for her. She loves the athleticism required, to both watch and play. She personally feels best-suited for rugby over all other sports.
MacDowell spotted the talent in Carissa and Christina, and without first knowing of their sibling status, looked to pair them up in the hopes that Christina would mentor Carissa; he recommended they take each other’s contact information to train and carpool together. Thinking it a stellar idea, Christina clarified the relationship and laughter ensued.
It’s one thing for one sibling to be pegged as “one to watch”; for two siblings to exhibit the same level of skill, professionalism, and passion – that’s a very rare thing to see.
Head Coach of Saskatchewan’s U18 team, Kayla Mack Thiel knew there was “x-factor” going on with both girls, much like MacDowell and all the Norsten’s previous coaches.
Mack says, “I would say that Christina's x-factor is that she understands the game, she sees things developing, and then she has the physicality and skills to take advantage of those situations.
Carissa's x-factor is definitely her instinct and raw athleticism on the field. I coached Carissa when she was very new to the gam… and you would have never been able to guess as you watched her on the field.
The Norsten Sisters embody everything that is Saskatchewan rugby. They are hardworking, humble, and excellent teammates. I look forward to seeing where rugby takes them.”
Carissa and Christina both point to time spent together at home working to further their skills as part of their success in rugby, as well as taking advantage of any extra opportunities and training sessions provided to them. Carissa points to moving to Vancouver Island to be closer to rugby-central as a key to her success, as she’s able take advantage of every single extra skills session and ID camp possible.
Carissa is grateful and shares her success readily.
Her parents drove her everywhere she needed to be; Kayla Mack was everywhere she needed her to be, even on the other end of the phone. Carissa feels ready to face all the technical and physical training necessary in order to reach her next steps.
Of course, the very basic skills of holding and passing the ball have to be in place.
Both Norsten’s point to MacDowell as the sensei in that regard, as well as each other and their younger brother for all the passing and kicking.
Mom Marcia echoes that sentiment. “No one liked to be beaten or to lose; the games would get faster, more aggressive, and the tackling would be rougher. We knew with this ‘don’t give up, play harder ‘ attitude [coupled with] the athletic ability both girls have, they would have a good chance to do more with their skills.”
Carissa looks up to Canada 7s star Kayla Moleschi as the gold standard: “She always takes the time with players to give pointers. She is always willing to help out and answer questions. Even though she is one of the best players in the world, she is super open, welcoming, and always has a smile on her face. It is inspiring to see how much she loves playing, as well as sharing what she knows.”
Early coaches Prior, Carter and Whyte also get the nod. If not for the engaging and fun way that young players are introduced to rugby – to get them “hooked” in the first place, as Carissa says – there would be no passion for the game. It is the grassroots that ignites the spark. Without them, there would be no flame for player to seek to improve their skills, to aspire to be a world-class player.
At the end of the day, academy coaches and former professionals are muses to young players once the local coaches have done all they can to further the raw talent. Yet, none of it would be possible without mom and dad.
Christina and Carissa’s parents realized the passion and skill the girls showed for the game was unique and special, and they did all they could to help the girls realize their fullest potential.
Marcia says: “Once we started watching the girls play against other provincial athletes from across Canada, we realized that they were able to keep up and successfully play the game against any level of skill they came up against. It was at this point we realized – along with the encouragement from Robin MacDowell – that if they wanted to have the opportunity at the National level they would have to move away from the prairies…”
With the belief that both Christina and Carissa could make their “Farm to Sea” dreams a reality, Marcia and the girls’ dad Moe agreed to let their rugby ambitions take flight. One day Marcia and Moe hope the girls appear on the same roster together on the international stage. “It is our hope they never lose their passion for the game and continue to play with the same drive and aggressiveness they showed the first time they stepped out on the pitch.”
The high school teacher spotted it; the local coaches nurtured it, Kayla Mack and Robin MacDowell fostered and fertilized it. The level of supportive competition drove them further. Their parents believed in them. Now the world lays at the feet of these two Farm to Sea phenoms.
Next stop, both Christina and Carissa Norsten become names synonymous with Canadian rugby.
From Farm to Sea with Next Stop: The World.
Watch for the next chapter in the Norsten Sister story.
Rugby Hive https://anchor.fm/rugbyhive