Mahalia Robinson’s journey to Concordia rugby

From a small rural town to the big city lights of Concordia captaincy

Mahalia Robinson holds the Kelly Anne Drummond Trophy, standing alongside Drummond’s family and Stingers Athletics Director D’Arcy Ryan. Photo Jiawei Hong

Mahalia Robinson sits on the metallic bleachers along the Concordia turf field sidelines. Scratches, turf burns, and cleat marks tattoo her thigh and her fingers, familiar blemishes for the Stingers women’s rugby captain.

Upon hearing the first question, Robinson takes a moment to find her words, reflecting on the past four years of her university athletics career—one she came close to never acquiring. 

Growing up as a multi-sport athlete, Robinson always wanted to represent Canada, no matter what the sport. Her athletic prowess garnered her much attention in high school.

“She was that girl in basketball to watch out for. Our coach would always say to watch out for her because she was so athletic,” said Stingers back Leanne Duncan, who remembers when the two faced off in high school. This knack for sports led her to join the rugby team at Champlain College where she was named a Réseau du sport étudiant du Québec (RSEQ) all-star.

Coming from Fulford, Que.—one of the many farming towns east of Montreal—Robinson knew that her options following her time at Champlain were limited. Robinson had no plans of attending university, electing instead to join the army. 

She passed the aptitude test on her second attempt, only to be denied admission during the medical examination due to the medication she was taking. 

Robinson did not detail her condition, but she did share that it was related to her mental health. Regardless, she felt that the medication should not have been a limitation. 

“Being told that you’re not able to do something even though you know you’re able to do it is a bit like a slap on the head,” Robinson said. The stigma left her feeling worthless. 

Dealt a worse hand, Robinson grew increasingly unsure and unmotivated toward her next steps in life. Her athletic prowess garnered interest from both McGill and Bishop’s University, however, it was an email from Concordia head coach Jocelyn Barrieau that shifted her direction. 

Robinson showcased her talent in front of Barrieau at the age of 16 while coaching with the U18 Quebec provincial team. Robinson was a part of the roster herself and her talent left a lasting impression on the Stingers head coach.

In a lopsided loss to an American team, Robinson was the only person on the team who scored in the game. “She scored this super athletic try where she kicked the ball up to herself,” Barrieau reminisced. “At 16 years old, I was like, ‘Wow, this kid’s awesome.’” 

The two lost touch for a couple of years, mainly because Robinson could not afford to participate with the National team. Luckily for her, the Stingers were in a position of needing to load the team up with talent due to the massive amount of graduates who left the team.

After inheriting the program in 2018, Barrieau scoured the internet for top talent ahead of the 2019 year. “I recognized [Mahalia’s] name, reached out and the rest is history.” 

For Robinson, it was the university’s reputation, with notable alumni such as Alex Tessier and Freddy Rajotte, that persuaded her to attend.

Robinson didn’t hesitate to respond to Barrieau. She immediately applied to Concordia and became the top recruit in her 2019 rookie class. 

Leanne Duncan was a part of this same class. A native of Ormstown, Que., Duncan recalled the timid yet athletic freshman Robinson. 

“As soon as she joined the team I knew that she had this grit that not many other girls had,” Duncan said. “In our first year, Mahalia was a lot more quiet. As the years progressed, she became more and more goofy.”

Robinson grew into her own as a Stinger. Gradually, she worked her way into the starting 15 among the backs. Soon enough, she was tasked with kicking conversions, aiding in augmenting her total points rankings. In 2022, she was ranked fifth provincially with 55 total points scored. This past season, she surpassed that number with 71 points scored, leading her team in this statistical category. 

Despite the impressive accolades, Robinson is dismissive, deciding to focus on what she can contribute to her team. 

“Rugby’s a team sport. I like to look at the final score at the end of the game as opposed to the individual,” she said. “I go into a game thinking about how many points we can score as a team. I don’t care who scores.” 

In her final campaign, Robinson was given the daunting task—along with other veteran players on the squad—of assimilating a strong recruiting class of freshmen into the starting lineup. The Stingers have struggled to overcome injuries and graduation among other obstacles interfering with a full roster. Robinson herself has played through bronchitis in multiple games to suit up for the maroon and gold.

“That’s kind of how it is in fall sports,” Robinson chuckled. “It starts getting cold, you play in the cold, you get sick.”

Under the guise of the vets, the rookies came into their own.

“I try to lead by example,” she said. Despite Robinson saying she has not perfected being a captain, as a leader, her familiarity with the Stingers program helped the inexperienced players get acclimated. 

“We jog everywhere, we don’t walk. We tap our teammates on the hand, we don’t tear anyone down,” she said. “Just doing those small things in practice helps bring our rookies up to that level.”

“She connects more with her teammates now,” said Barrieau. “Every year gets closer and closer with her teammates, and become better friends,” Barrieau added that it’s cool to see someone like Robinson—who takes herself so seriously in her school work, on the field, and with her part-time job—be so inviting and let loose with her peers. 

The goal at the end of Robinson’s final year was for a top-three finish inside the RSEQ. With powerhouses such as the Laval Rouge et Or stacking up the Quebec rugby landscape, Robinson and the Stingers achieved their goal, placing third behind the previously mentioned Université Laval and the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees. 

Robinson has her sights now set on the Canadian National Team, a program she has participated in since 2022.

“I’ve learned a lot from that team. Everyone is good. Everyone is fighting for a spot on that team.” Robinson added that the prowess of the National Team is legitimate, allowing for her to pick up tricks of the trade to improve her skill level.

As she looks back on her time in U Sports, Robinson remembers the unconventional training that propelled her to where she is now, from running up steep hills to the makeshift weights she used from random materials in her house. 

“You don’t have to come from a lot to become a lot,” said Robinson. “Everything that’s come from rugby, I’ve earned, it hasn’t been given to me [...] If anyone else is in that position where they think ‘Oh, I can’t go to school,’ or ‘I can’t play sports’ because they’re not from the city, it’s not true. You just got to work hard, put yourself out there and good things will come.”

Robinson's next venture will be the Rugby 7s International University Sports Federation (FISU) championship this summer in Aix-en-Provence, France. In order to cover the steep $5,000 worth of expenses, she has set up a GoFundMe campaign.

“Playing at FISU is, for me, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity as this would be the last year I’d be eligible and it’s not every day you’re asked to go play rugby in France,” said Robinson. “Being able to represent my country and my university, playing the sport I love, it’s a huge honour.”