BEFORE LEINSTER AND Connacht contest the Guinness Pro12 final at 5.30pm this evening, there’ll actually be another Irish team in action at Murrayfield, though — as they’ll admit themselves, you probably have never heard of them.
At 3pm on Murrayfield’s back pitch Ireland’s only mixed ability, 15-a-side full-contact rugby team — the Sunday’s Well Rebels — will take on the Scottish National Clan.
And while you may not have heard about The Well’s mixed ability team, they’re the current world champions and team administrator — not to mention utility back – Alan Craughwell says that Saturday’s game is an opportunity for Irish fans to see what the sport is all about ahead of the Pro12 decider.
“We’re hoping that people will spare a few minutes before the start of the big one to pop along and see us and hopefully get inspired to start a mixed ability team of their own elsewhere in the country because, right now, we’re the only one,” Craughwell told The42 this week.
Mixed ability rugby sees players with disabilities such as Down Syndrome and Aspergers come together with those without a disability to play 15-a-side, full-contact rugby with only minor adaptations like uncontested scrums.
“If you were to compare it to anything, it’s much more similar to veterans’ rugby than it would be to tag rugby.
“Some of our players do prefer lesser contact in a tackle and they’d wear a marker like a red scrum cap which means they don’t receive a ‘full’ tackle and they’re forced to go to ground when contact is made.
“They wouldn’t be counter-rucked over or anything like that and when they receive the ball they’d be given a couple of yards before there’s any attempt to make a tackle.
“It’s really designed in such a way as to include as many players as possible in the game and the team is usually split 7-8 or 8-7 in terms of people with disabilities and people without,” Craughwell says.
Sunday’s Well on their way to becoming world champions.
Those without a disability are called “player facilitators” and they help their team-mates with participation in the game and play at the key positions like number eight and out-half to support the flow of the game.
“It’s very much sociable rugby and really encourages older players or players who maybe fell away from the game to get back involved. Not only do they get back playing, but they can pass on their knowledge to their team-mates and that’s a massive aspect of what we’re about.
“It’s a massive outlet for inclusion for people who would normally not be able to play contact sport and it’s something our players have told us, that it can be very difficult to find a sport that will accept them, but with rugby’s nature of ‘all shapes, all sizes’ there’s a role for everybody.”
Craughwell — a Connacht native in exile in Cork — works as a Day Service Manager with the Cope Foundation and it was through his job that he got the idea of starting the team.
“I was reading a magazine in work about teams in Wales and England and something struck a chord in me and I recalled that one of the guys I support had come to me and said he wanted to play rugby but didn’t want ‘to pull the strings off somebody’s shorts.’
“I then approached a friend of mine involved with Sunday’s Well and we held an open meeting to see what the interest would be after we’d travelled over to the UK to see how the game was played and gather as much information as we could.
“Sunday’s Well have been 100% behind us since day one and I can’t thank them enough because they’ve taken a really positive risk as it’s not the kind of outlet in sport that’s usually offered to people with disabilities.”
Source: International Mixed Ability Sports/YouTube
The backing of the club was rewarded when the Rebels won the inaugural Mixed Ability Rugby World Tournament in 2015 and today’s game is a chance for revenge for the Scottish National Clan who they drew with on the way to last year’s title.
“I’d just encourage everyone who is heading to the game to pop along a little bit early and have a look at what we’re all about,” Craughwell says.
“Right now we’re the only team in the country but I’m sure there is an interest there in the other provinces and we’d be more than happy to give people advice and support if they wanted to start a team of their own.
“The first step is to come and see us play on Saturday.”
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