Mixed ability tag rugby (The Raptors) started in Corinthians RFC 5 years ago and it has been a tremendous success. Under the watchful eyes of Derek Niland, Jack Nohilly and Mark Deegan and other coaches it has continued to grow. We do not use the term disability but rather the term “mixed ability” as often we have able bodied family members helping, participating, and playing the game with their brothers and sisters.
We started with 3 players; we now have more than 50 registered mixed ability players who come out on Saturdays with their parents and guardians and their siblings, who all take a full part, in coaching and facilitating. Every few weeks we get new players and we never turn anyone away. We have a mix of male and female players. The emphasis is on having fun.
It started because there was a complete lack of sporting facilities for people of mixed abilities to train, become part of a team, and have some fun. As one of the Parents said, “if we don’t have this, we have nothing”.
Our youngest player is 6 and the oldest player is 28. These are players who have never been picked on a team before and now understand that they can play with no judgement.
We have always had the full backing and support of Galway Corinthians RFC and Connacht Rugby.
As a former player with Galway Corinthians, Derek approached the club to see if he could start a programme/team for people of mixed ability. The answer was an enormous yes and they would facilitate anything needed as the club always prided itself on being inclusive and welcoming.
The Raptors also approached The Connacht Rugby Branch and got an equally positive response and a willingness to provide support and players to help our team. We have been delighted to be allowed to train on occasions (pre covid) in “The Sportsground”, home of Connacht Rugby.
Galway Sports Partnership were equally helpful in providing support and guidance.
The Raptors model of Mixed Ability rugby is not about classifying levels of ability and separating disabled players into different tiers of ability nor categories of condition. The emphasis is on the inclusion of all players, as far as we are concerned, we are all equal. This helps to create a great social atmosphere, and everyone knows that they are part of the club.
Mixed Ability sport brings together disabled and non-disabled participants in the same mainstream sport and, in doing so, creates environments that are safe, welcoming and non-judgmental for everyone.
Despite knowing that physical activity benefits individuals’ physical and mental health, many people still face barriers to participating in mainstream sport. Inclusive sport contributes to the socialisation of children with disabilities, especially those with severe disabilities who may otherwise have few opportunities to meet other children and learn social skills such as cooperation, sharing, turn taking, etc. Inclusive sport can build the self-esteem of children with disabilities, reducing their inferiority complex, if they are able to compete equally with and maybe even beat children who do not have a disability.
We hope that this has enabled previously excluded participants to become equal team members without being separated, classified, or labelled. Wider social benefits as a result of the programme include increased social integration and diversity awareness, as well as changing perceptions within clubs and communities.
Mixed Ability Rugby opens the game to participants who face a wide range of barriers, reengaging and retaining former and new rugby players and raising awareness around equality and inclusion.
We do not want Mixed Ability rugby to be moving or inspirational. We just want the players to feel a sense of camaraderie and normality while enjoying the celebration of mixed ability rugby.
It’s great to have senior players in the clubhouse standing next to someone with learning and/or physical disabilities, chatting after training or at after a match. To us, that is what rugby is all about, being socially included and using rugby to create those opportunities.
For the underage players we have found that the social and psychological benefits to being part of a team is as great as the physical exercise. Players’ social circles and confidence have been transformed as some of them have never been part of any team before and now feel part of a club and have now played in the Sportsground during Connacht matches, and in tournaments in Barnhall RFC and De La Salle Palmerstown RFC.
We have arranged with Connacht Rugby to run a coaching course for the parents/guardians and especially the over 16 players. This is the first of its type in Irish Rugby and the player/coaches are rightly proud of their achievements.
Our only rule is that parent /guardian must stay for the duration of training. Many times, both parents stay, as do siblings, and sometimes extended family and family friends. This helps with our growth and the inclusiveness of our team. It also introduces the parents /guardians to each other, and they have responded by helping with coaching which benefits everyone. There are at least 200 people who have participated with the Mixed Ability Raptors.
We train on Saturdays because other teams from the minis section train on a Saturday, so we are just one of the many teams who train. We do not want to be classed as “the disability team” who train on their own, when no one else is around. It is about inclusion. Pre Covid the players and their parents/guardians would join others for hot dogs and tea/coffee after training.
We train for 11 months of the year, just taking a break in August. Our training is now part of the routine, so it is important that we are always there.
Some players come out just want to watch, some want to walk around, some want to run all over the place, and some want a structured set up to play. Whatever each player wants, we facilitate it. It is important they feel welcomed and accepted.
It is a great place for a child to have a meltdown as no one will stare and be judgemental. It is accepted for what it is, just a rough moment, no more.
Derek, Jack, and Mark and all the coaches are passionate about inclusion in sport and this has been recognised widely as they were honoured as the winners of the 2018/19 Connacht Rugby Unsung Hero award for their work in April 2019.
Derek Niland was the winner of the IRFU All-Ireland League volunteer of the year 2018/19 for his work in promoting inclusion Rugby and the establishment of Tag disability rugby in May 2019.
The three of them will tell you that the awards were accepted on behalf of the group, and while it was lovely for the group to be recognised, awards are unnecessary when you can connect with your friends each week. One of the parents said that the 2018 grand slam for Ireland was much better than the 2009 grand slam, as he is now in a rugby club and now felt a part of the community. That sums it up for all of us.