Posted 12.4.17 - Picture: Mutual respect after the Warriors vs Swansea Vikings (April 17)
Having been involved with the Llanelli Warriors for almost 20 years and having seen the benefit of integrated/mixed ability rugby, I wanted to try and write down a brief summary of why integrated rugby and the Llanelli Warriors in particular, are such positive projects.
The Llanelli Warriors are a rugby team who include players with and without disabilities. The Warriors play full contact rugby union (and occasional games of 7s and touch rugby) against local sides.
People with learning difficulties face numerous problems; discrimination, social exclusion, low income, prejudice. 8 out of 10 will have suffered bullying as a child, 50% of families with a disabled child live in poverty, only 1/3 of people with a learning disability take part in some form of education or training and only 6% of people with a learning disability who can work are in work (source - Mencap).
Sport and rugby.
Team sport is well known for various benefits: Healthy competition, respect, teamwork, physical fitness, strength and conditioning, self-awareness, character building, confidence, self-respect, strategy, concentration, analytic skills, enjoyment.
Rugby is especially good at enhancing some of these.
The physical nature of rugby means that there is a respect for all who take part, there is nothing like being tackles, or outpaced or out jumped by someone to gander respect and challenge prejudice. The physicality of the sport also means that the confidence gained is greater. The team work element is stronger in rugby than most other sports because there are so many specialist roles and players are interdependent on each other, Wingers rely on 2nd rows, a job they probably couldn’t manage themselves. All players find something they can excel at and are therefore a crucial part of the team. In most forms of football, all players have a very similar skill set or (as in American football) a limited amount of time on the field. Rugby Union sees all the players on the field together throughout. The players become part of the “rugby family” which unites players of all ages and abilities across the world, from All Blacks to junior rugby there is a mutual respect for anyone who takes to the field.
Ultimately rugby is a popular game because of the physicality; players enjoy this aspect of the game. Rather than a segregated competition where athletes with learning difficulties only compete against other athletes with learning difficulties (like the Special Olympics), the players are part of ‘mainstream’ rugby culture and play ‘normal’ teams. Players with and without disabilities feature on the same team.
“I want to be treated like everyone else, I want to have the same tackles, I can take it” – Warriors player.
“They told us they want to play real rugby, not pull strings off shorts” – Coach of Irish integrated team.
Rugby also has a strong social culture and this is very important to the Warriors. Two-thirds of people feel awkward around disability according to Scope Charity who run a “End the awkward” campaign. The post-game bar makes for a relaxed setting where people can mingle easily and discuss the game, now having something in common. Instead of seeing someone passing on a white bus, they can be discussing a referee decision, a particular tackle or who should play fly half for Wales. Most people would like to show an interest but aren’t sure how, a rugby club provides the perfect setting. Rugby is famous for its banter and ALL players find themselves the butt of a joke sometimes which can be refreshing and even enhancing for players, better than never being involved in banter or always being the butt of a joke. For those with disabilities, it is often an invaluable chance to learn social skills, meet people and make new friends. Increased social confidence can see players come out of their shells and we have known previously quiet players give speeches and even lead songs. These social skills and the opportunity to practice them in such an atmosphere can be crucial to peoples’ lives, having the confidence to ask for things, to pay for things, to be away from home, to travel around the country. One player recently made his 1st ever unaccompanied trip to Swansea.
The Llanelli Warriors
Exclusion from rugby is especially apparent in Llanelli and Wales where it is such a big part of the culture but in a world of; risk assessments, care and support, those with a learning difficulty are generally consigned to (at best) a watching brief. Players often come from families where fathers, uncles, brothers and sisters have played. The Warriors have given some of these families the chance to take the field together. Players get the chance to emulate their family and friends, giving them the common ground of playing in the rain, or the awful showers at a certain ground. Furthermore, experiences like playing at the Arms Park or against an Italian side have given our players something others may not have done. Players can pass on their experiences and advice to others, making them a role model.
The Warriors are at the forefront of spreading the concept of integrated rugby. The Warriors and were directly involved in sides setting up in Scotland and England as well as supporting sides in Italy, Spain, Wales and Ireland. In England the Warriors start up guide has been adopted by the RFU as part of their Mixed Ability rugby development program, used to help and advice any new team. In Scotland the Warriors are involved in Scottish charity TRI Rugby’s integrated coaching development. The Warriors played a leading role in both the formation and writing the constitution for Ability Rugby International – a worldwide federation of integrated clubs. The Warriors devised the rules for the A.R.I. Championship, a competition allowing all integrated clubs to compete against each other.
The Llanelli Warriors played 21 fixtures in both the 2014/15 and 2015/16 seasons, helping them to win the Ability Rugby International Championship and they have played more games than any other integrated club. As well as playing teams in and around the Llanelli area, they have regular matches in Cardiff, have toured across Britain and in 2005 toured New Zealand. These trips and the experiences players gain from them not only helps them, but helps them contribute to local rugby culture, rather than hearing or watching rugby, the players have not only emulated their family and peers but sometimes have people envious of them. A match with the Warriors (whichever side you’re on) can help develop skills in a match situation but without the pressure of league rugby, often sees players trying out different positions and many times we have seen players rediscover their enthusiasm for the game. Several players for the Warriors, both disabled and non-disabled, have gone on to play for other local teams. A fixture with the Warriors; increases interest, publicity and bar takings for opponents.
An important part of the Warriors ethos is to play regular ‘normal’ rugby teams rather than a segregated competition which can increase ideas of difference and inferiority. Rather there are as few concessions to safety as possible (passive scrums), otherwise the same rules, the same kit, the same rewards. Players are not patronised by having frequent prizes or told they are representing anything other than their club. Players are treated equally without special treatment and everyone knows that rewards when they come are earnt.
The Warriors are not only helping players locally but are setting bench marks of what can be achieved by integrated clubs and they are supporting other to emulate them.
The Warriors club looks to challenge stereotypes off field as well as on. Whilst “almost 1 in 3 young people with a learning disability spend less than 1 hour outside on Saturdays” (Mencap) the Warriors encourage the social aspect of the club and have run numerous trips to internationals, they have published a nude calendar and raised money for other charities – turning provider rather than recipient.
Off field the Warriors have numerous social events which strengthen the social aspect of the club. Trips to games, tours, TV studios, etc. have helped even further widen peoples range of experiences. The Warriors work hard on their social media presence with a website, Facebook and twitter profiles. This recognition helps further build players’ confidence and supports the spread of the concept of integrated rugby.
The Warriors have made rugby available to people who wouldn’t otherwise have had the opportunity across West Wales and be example, even further afield. It is not just players with a disability who have benefited. Integrated clubs enhance their local rugby communities, bringing new experiences and opportunities to ‘able bodied’ players as well. The Warriors have seen numerous examples of former players return to the game, not only for Warriors matches but also to local clubs. The Warriors generate interest and revenue which is crucial to some of the smaller clubs they play. The Warriors twin philosophies of providing new rugby opportunities and of these experiences being what any rugby player would value, have made it enjoyable for the club’s non-disabled players as well. The chance to tour abroad, participate in international tournaments and play at some prestigious grounds is valued by all.
The results are people with a new sense of identity that they can be proud of and a multi layered community that they belong to; hooker, forward, rugby player, Welsh rugby player, joker, singer, fast, brave, etc. They make many new friends, many outside the disabled community. The publicity the club generates focuses on players’ abilities and to see themselves in the paper, on television, on the internet, reinforces this positive identity, for the player and for those who know them. This alongside the development of new skills and abilities (which can be everything from how to throw a ball to how to buy a pack of crisps) and new experiences inevitability lead to better self-confidence.
On a wider scale on various levels the Warriors have helped change various people’s perceptions of learning difficulties. From someone reading a story in a magazine, to parents who never thought their son could take part in rugby.
It is not all one way. Integrated clubs enhance their local rugby communities, bringing new experiences and opportunities to ‘able bodied’ players as well. The Warriors have seen numerous examples of former players return to the game, not only for Warriors matches but also to local clubs. The Warriors generate interest and revenue which is crucial to some of the smaller clubs they play, they have even been crucial in some teams existence.
The Warriors are indebted to many organisations and sponsors who over the years have supported the team. Carmarthenshire County Council, Llanelli RFC, New Dock Stars RFC, Burry Port RFC, IWEC, WRW, RDH Ltd and Perthyn have all played significant parts in the club’s history. Whilst there are too many other sponsors, rugby clubs and individuals. Both inside and outside the club itself, we hope that there will be many more willing to support this most positive of projects to continue to develop in the future.
The Llanelli Warriors are now 21 years old and this summer will to return to New Zealand and travel to Samoa. They will be following the British Lions and Welsh teams and playing matches of their own, again offering life changing experiences to their own players, taking the concept of integrated rugby around the world and demonstrating that almost anything is possible.
The Warriors are a wholly amateur club; no one is paid for anything they do with the Warriors. Money raised is all through membership, sponsorship and fundraising.
The team is still fundraising for this tour and you can donate via the Just Giving page here:
The change in him is incredible, he has gained so much confidence I think it’s fantastic. (Social Worker)
I love the Warriors, I have made loads of friends and I love playing rugby now like my cousins do. (player)
They have given him so much, I feel the Warriors have become a 2nd family for him, well for all of us really. (Player's Mother)
I can see the change in the way he walks and the way he holds himself. (Social Worker)
I have come out of myself now. I do my hair, I make sure I wear nicer clothes, I feel better. People have told me I look better, I look forward to things now. (player)
I've been lucky enough to wear the red of Wales at Youth level but playing the Warriors is my proudest moment on a rugby field. (opponent)
I've played representative rugby growing up but today was my happiest day on a rugby field, I enjoyed so much. (opponent).
Rugby has always been a great leveler, what the Gladiators and Warriors have shown is that rugby can be a great elevator, can raise the soul, and on the way up, labels such as disabled and non-disabled, simply vanish. Eddie Butler (BBC, former international)
Warriors Tour to New Zealand and Samoa itinerary:
Wed 14/6/17 Travel to London, Flight from London 21:25
Thu 15/6/17: Arrive Auckland 10:45am
Fri 16/6/17: Tonga v Wales (Eden Park – presume evening kick off on a Friday)
Sat 17/6/17: Travel to Hamilton – Maori v Lions 19:35 (Rotarua)
Tue 20/6/17: Chiefs v Lions (19:35)
Wed 21/6/17: Travel to Auckland, depart 16:25, Arrive Apia 21:15
Fri 23/6/17: ??? Samoa v Wales (they haven't confirmed but I suspect another Friday for tv)
Sat 24/6/17: ??? Samoa v Wales. (NZ v Lions 21:35)
Sun 25/6/17: Depart Apia 21:55, Arrive Auckland 1:10
Wed 28/6/17: Depart Auckland 13:10
Thu 28/6/17:Arrive Ldn 7:15
Warriors matches: Game in Hamilton area, game in Samoa, game in Auckland area - South Auckland Kiwis if they are still going