A guide to setting up an integrated rugby team.
This short guide is personal view based on 13 years playing for the Llanelli Warriors and taking an active interest in how other teams operate. I have great pleasure in re writing this slightly in the knowledge that it works – at least as a guide as evidenced by the formation of BumbleBees RFC and The Clan.
Forming an integrated rugby team is pretty much the same as forming any other rugby side. Any new team is likely to be a mixture of experienced players, keen novices and people helping to make up the numbers. An integrated team is perhaps more likely to have more rugby novices and less understanding of the game and therefore more reliant on experienced players.
The basic ingredients of any rugby team (you will need):
Players: A modern day rugby squad comprises of 22 players. To allow for the unavailability on occasion of even the keenest player you probably need 27 or so fairly dedicated players, however as friendly matches have no restriction on substitutes – the more the merrier, especially as some players may not want to take the field for very long – especially if it is their first experience of rugby. Playing passive scrums removes the necessity of having specialist front and second row players. Whilst I would like to encourage integrated teams to be as ‘normal’ as possible, these are highly specialised positions where experience is essential and having to find experienced players here will reduce the opportunity to let novices get involved. Furthermore, one of the symptoms of Downs Syndrome is fused vertebrae in the neck – a condition which would make contested scrummaging very dangerous. Having passive scrums allows novices to a place to experience the game and control their involvement. Players here are involved in set piece (scrums and line outs) but then can choose how much they want to get involved after this.
It is important that the team has some experience/ability amongst the forwards, at half backs, amongst the centres and amongst the back three. Probably the most important positions are the half backs at 9 and 10 who effectively run the game. With these in place it is quite simple to play basic rugby.
It is important that the more experienced and better players realise that one of the major aims of integrated rugby is to give people with learning difficulties the chance to get involved and to shine. There is a balance to achieve between playing as well personally possible for oneself and the team against involving others. Good players who are able to play well when needed but happy to develop and help others (which in itself requires good ability) are perfect. Too many good players of too high an ability might also lead to problems, intimidate other players and highlight differences so the number of good players also requires balance.
With services being delivered in different ways it may be that some people have the opportunity to play as part of work. An over reliance on players in this situation would leave the team vulnerable to changes in circumstance e.g. a change in policy that doesn’t allow them to claim time back, and then such players then not continuing.
Contact rugby: Initially I believe many of the parents were quite sceptical of having full contact rugby. We were lucky in that our 1st games were against the Swansea Gladiators who are a similar side. However generally speaking we play pretty full contact rugby. I am often asked by opposition about 'how hard' they should go and who they should tackle. My standard response is that it will be like an exhibition match or a past v present where perhaps there might be a couple of youngsters in the side. I also advise teams to take it easy in the 1st 5 minutes and then they will probably see who they have got to tackle, I tell them to try and make the tackles they have to - i.e. if someone is very small or going very slowly then there is no need to smash them backwards. I might also point out that spear tackling and also proper rucking are not going to be very welcome. Although many people express concern over full contact rugby I always point out that it's a very popular game because of the contact element - people like running into each other, whilst tag/touch rugby is seen as a fun way of keeping fit but not 'proper' rugby. Building up confidence for tackling is a constant problem but I find it comes slowly with the right drills and lots of praise. The rewards are worth it when someone gets it right in a game. As before, players who want to be part of the team but don't really like the rough and tumble I usually accommodate at prop or on a wing.
Rugby is a physical game and it is the enjoyment of this physicality which makes it popular. Injury is part and parcel of rugby and therefore isn't for everyone. A first aider should be present at matches (opposition may be able to provide that knowledge and many workers/carers who may be involved may have sufficient knowledge. Whilst most injuries will be cuts and bruises be prepared for broken bones and concussions – play enough games and they will happen. If in doubt phone an ambulance. However most rugby players will display scars with pride and dealing with pain appropriately is part of life. The risk of neck injury is greatly reduced if scrums are passive.
The Gladiators use a slightly enhanced safety system whereby full contact players and semi contact players wear different coloured shorts (black or white) and non contact players (who tend to just come on for a few minutes) wear a scrum cap.
We are affiliated (honorary members) of our local rugby union: Llanelli & District and get basic insurance through them - disability and loss of earning.
Opposition: Obviously it is essential to have a team to play against. It is also important that they realise what is trying to be achieved. It is not a matter of winning or losing but of playing in a certain spirit. What is required is that players are tested but not overwhelmed. This may sound difficult to achieve but if this concept is adhered to then nothing should go too far wrong. Ideally everyone would experience some success and some failures, but the experience should be positive enough to encourage. Sometimes people are more motivated by failing than immediately achieving – but not if they are humiliated.
Experience with the Warriors suggests that the more established the team are the more likely they are to put (collective) ego aside and help facilitate the experience of others. This may seem a patronising attitude but may be better in the long term than playing a side which is only interested in winning, especially in a first match. Conversely the integrated side running up a huge score leaves little room for improvement and may not be challenging enough to hold peoples interest.
A good dialogue with the opposition is probably the best way to ensure all goals are met (or at least aimed for). Most teams are reassured by a quick chat beforehand basically outlining the contact advice given here.
That said defeat is part of life and the occasional heavy defeat for the Warriors has not harmed the team or the players. More important than the result is that the teams treat each other with respect.
If one team was obviously a lot better than the other and people felt this was hampering everyone’s enjoyment then the better team might consider taking on some of the other teams less able players and/or taking the opportunity to experiment and put people in unfamiliar positions. This would work in games between integrated team and against ‘regular’ teams.
Facilities: A marked up rugby field, post protectors, changing rooms, kit and somewhere to socialise afterwards. It is quite probable that opponents can provide all this. If not – pitches and changing facilities can be hired from local councils, most pubs would welcome 30 plus players calling back after a game and happy to provide a cheap buffet (or at least allow one to be eaten there). If kit cannot be borrowed then choose a popular colour that most people will already have and agree to all wear that.
If your team is part of a larger rugby club then all this should be available for you.
Insurance: Again for members of a parent club this should be part of membership fees. Otherwise insurance can be purchased on a match by match basis. A team the Warriors play charge each player £10 which covers insurance, hire of field and leaves enough for a donation to charity. Having passive scrums may reduce insurance costs. Once established the Warriors became honorary members of their local Union and basic insurance is provided through them.
Referee: If not arranged through the parent club and no one knows someone qualified who is prepared to do it then local rugby organisations may be able to provide a list of names. Whilst technically various people may be able to referee, it is likely to be a requirement of insurance that they have to be suitably qualified. Typically, travelling expenses are paid to the referee (but this may be redeemable against the organising member union).
Finally: Those are the basic requirements to set up a game of rugby and therefore a rugby club. Councils have sports development departments that should be approached and as well as local rugby clubs there are various unions all the way up to national level who will have varying degrees of rugby development as part of their remit. This is probably the place to go for initial coaching lessons and advice. Many people may be nervous of getting involved but there is now enough presence on the web through established clubs; Swansea Gladiators, Llanelli Warriors, Bradford & Bingley Bumbles and The Clan to reassure people. If people require or deny things that they wouldn’t of other rugby teams then that is discrimination.
Little mention has been made of disabilities in this guide and that is because it is the same issues that any new team would face. Every team’s circumstances will be different but I think if you follow these steps then it will be a positive experience.
On field I feel it is important to remember that an integrated team is slightly different and that there is an emphasis not only in playing to the best of ability and winning games but also of developing and showcasing the abilities of members with disabilities. These aims are interrelated – not mutually exclusive and it requires a balance.
Rugby is built on teamwork, respect and enjoyment. As much as possible treat players the same – all as individuals.
Last bit of advice would be to emphasise the social aspect of the game. A traditionally important part of rugby it is another chance for people to enjoy and shine.
Gwilym Lewis - Llanelli Warriors manager and player