Justin Marinier trains with a small group of rugby players at Maple Bay Elementary School on Sunday, Jan. 31. The Cowichan Secondary School graduate is on the fast track to the national program and isn’t letting the COVID-19 pandemic slow him down. (Kevin Rothbauer/Citizen)

Justin Marinier trains with a small group of rugby players at Maple Bay Elementary School on Sunday, Jan. 31. The Cowichan Secondary School graduate is on the fast track to the national program and isn’t letting the COVID-19 pandemic slow him down. (Kevin Rothbauer/Citizen)

Cowichan-based rugby stars won’t let pandemic slow them down

‘Once this is over, they’re going to be locked and loaded’

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.”


Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here


Carissa Norsten, a student at Queen Margaret’s School and national rugby program prospect from Saskatchewan, trains with a small group of players at Maple Bay Elementary School on Sunday, Jan. 31. 
(Kevin Rothbauer/Citizen)

Carissa Norsten, a student at Queen Margaret’s School and national rugby program prospect from Saskatchewan, trains with a small group of players at Maple Bay Elementary School on Sunday, Jan. 31. (Kevin Rothbauer/Citizen)

Just Posted

Police presence in Chemainus in an actual building is limited to South Island Highway Patrol on Chemainus Road. (Photo by Pete Cavanaugh)
Petition calls for policing commitment in Chemainus to be honoured

Former detachment member leads the charge in making the municipality and RCMP accountable

Khowhemun Elementary is one of two Cowichan Valley schools that announced possible COVID-19 exposures last week. (Google Street View image)
Two Cowichan Valley schools announce possible COVID-19 exposures

Positive tests at Khowhemun, Quamichan; Superstore confirms more cases

Members of the 4-H Horse Club enjoy the annual horse camp at the Cowichan Exhibition grounds. (submitted)
Farm Credit Canada supports Cowichan 4-H club with cash

On the list of recipients is the Cowichan 4-H Horse Club out of Cobble Hill.

Flanked by CVOLC staff members Kevin van der Linden, Nate Boersen, Lisa Kellar and Neil Ellingson, Ryan Linehan receives his Student of the Month award from Rotary representatives Gregg Perry and Kim Barnard. 
(Kevin Rothbauer/Citizen)
Cowichan Valley Open Learning Collective ‘ambassador’ named Student of the Month

Ryan Linehan earns award for demonstrating natural leadership

(The Canadian Press)
‘Worse than Sept. 11, SARS and financial crisis combined’: Tourism industry in crisis

Travel services saw the biggest drop in active businesses with 31 per cent fewer firms operating

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix provide a regular update on the COVID-19 situation, B.C. legislature, March 2, 2020. (B.C. government)
B.C.’s COVID-19 cases: 545 Saturday, 532 Sunday, 385 Monday

Focus on Prince Rupert, Lower Mainland large workplaces

Rising accident rates and payout costs have contributed to billion-dollar deficits at ICBC. (Comox Valley Record)
B.C. appealing decision keeping ICBC injury cases in court

David Eby vows to ‘clip wings’ of personal injury lawyers

Hannah Ankenmann, who works with k’awat’si Economic Development Corporation, winces as she received her first shot of the Pfizer vaccine administered by a Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw Family Health nurse. (Zoe Ducklow photo)
Vancouver Island’s small remote towns to get community-wide vaccine clinics

Island Health to take a wholesale approach to immunization, rather than age-based appointments

Anyone with information is asked to call Nanaimo RCMP at 250-754-2345 or contact Crime Stoppers by calling 1-800-222-8477 or submitting a tip online at www.nanaimocrimestoppers.com.
21-year-old motorbike rider dies after crash with ATV on Nanaimo back road

Incident happened Sunday afternoon near Boomerang Lake

(Black Press Media files)
Hosts charged, attendees facing COVID fines after Vancouver police bust party at condo

Police had previously received 10 complains about that condo

Minister of Families, Children and Social Development Ahmed Hussen takes part in an update on the COVID pandemic during a press conference in Ottawa on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020. A joint federal and B.C. government housing program announced today aims to help people living in up to 25,000 vulnerable households pay their rent. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Federal, B.C. governments announce $517-million rent aid program to help vulnerable

Benefits for those not eligible for B.C.’s Rental Assistance Program or Shelter Aid for Elderly Renters

Most Read