Wednesday 19 September 2018

Showcasing the abilities and talents of everyone

Driven by the aim of total inclusiveness in sport, Cork outfit continue to flourish on the big stage, writes Declan Rooney

Mallow Barbarians players line out
Mallow Barbarians players line out

Declan Rooney

Extended rounds of applause are usually reserved for Munster tries in Thomond Park but last Saturday the province's supporters roared for the half-time action during a key inter-provincial derby.

The interval exhibition match featured two teams playing adapted tag rugby: Mallow Barbarians and Garryowen Lions.

Both teams feature male and female players separated by nearly four decades in age, and the teams showed how much work they've put in by giving a stunning display of flowing rugby, which was capped with some excellent tries.

The fact that the players each have intellectual disabilities was beside the point; at Thomond Park their abilities shone brightly.

The man responsible for the Mallow Barbarians is Benny Henry and he has written the coaching manual for adapted tag rugby, a document that he has presented to the IRFU in the hope of driving inclusion in sports for everyone.

He is 66 years old this year, and as he says he's 'celebrating 11 years of Parkinson's disease'.

The last three years has seen the Barbarians grow into the force it is now, and according to Benny, his involvement with the team has brought another ray of sunshine into his life.

"They are amazing people, and the Barbarians is a massive part of my life. I think I developed this disease for a reason because I can now do a lot of voluntary work," said Benny.

"I don't feel like I'm 66, I can still sprint 50 metres. I'm very positive. I believe things happen for a reason and I had a good, successful life.

Healthy

"I am as healthy as a horse, I just have a condition and the most important thing you have to do is accept the fact you have it and then challenge it every day.

"I call it 'Mr Parkinson' and every morning I go through a routine. The first person I say good morning to is Mr Parkinson and I give him the same option of staying in bed or coming with me. He invariable comes with me and likes my company."

Mallow Barbarians was formed in February 2015 in association with the local Cope Foundation, which supports children and adults with intellectual disabilities or autism.

Like the team they took their name from, Mallow Barbarians wear black and white hoops, but this jersey was designed by the players.

The coaching manual that Benny has compiled didn't appear out of thin air either: it took a lot of trial and error to help the players understand some details of the game, he says.

"When you are coaching the players you don't talk about it; you show them how it's done.

"They are very good and so appreciative. We have 26 at training every week, aged from 19 to 52. But it's a different type of coaching; there is more empathy and caring necessary.

"We usually do 40 minutes of physical training: jogging, running, sprinting, stretching and then we do some ball-handling skills. Their ball-handling skills are phenomenal.

"I made it up as I went along, but one of the biggest problems they had was they couldn't understand why the ball had to go backwards.

"It took them a while to get used to that. I designed a zig-zag exercise, which enabled them to do it. They score tries, they pass the ball and support each other."

While the jerseys were inspired by one traditional rugby great, the team's celebration was inspired by another.

As everyone knows, the All Blacks have their awesome haka, but the Mallow Barbarians have the 'rince', which is derived from the Irish word for dance.

"We have our own haka that we perform before and after the game called the 'rince'.

"What we also do is have a team meeting every six or seven weeks to hear their ideas, suggestions and complaints. It is a real good feeling to be able to do that."

Keeping teams like Mallow Barbarians up and running is crucial for the well-being of its players, and that would not be possible without the several volunteers that help out, along with the professional help supplied by the Cope Foundation.

Benny is a qualified juvenile rugby coach, but he gets plenty of help from the Barbarians team.

"Eamonn Gardiner is the administrative man. I am very structured in how I do things. We have Breda Corcoran and our Cope people and then Leonard Hanrahan has been on board since last year, and I hope he'll take over from me shortly.

"The Patrician Academy is the boys' secondary and as part of their transition year they help out too. They are all wonderful people and are so empathetic.

"I call them my kids but some of them are nearly as old as I am. The most important people are the 26 players."

The idea to form the Mallow Barbarians came from an IRFU ambition to promote inclusiveness in sport, and Benny felt it was the perfect project for the area.

To get it off the ground he needed financial assistance, and he has been blessed by the funding he received.

"We asked for investment rather than sponsorship. I come from a business background and I wrote to local businesses and asked if they were interested in investing in the future of inclusiveness in sport. We came out of it very well.

"We have one major sponsor who look after us every year and we also have some smaller sponsors.

"Blackwater Engineering have been really good to us, they're based beside Cope in Mallow.

"When we formed first there was a project from the IRFU to deal with inclusiveness in sport.

"We took it on board and made it very successful. I always said we had to promote it any way we can and playing in Thomond Park is one way.

"We have applied to install signposts coming into town saying, 'Mallow promotes and supports inclusiveness in sport'.

"In North Cork you have clubs like Mallow, Mitchelstown, Charleville and Fermoy and we wanted Mallow to be the hub for the area.

"There is no point in each club trying to form a new team when sometimes you might not have enough players, but if everyone comes under the one umbrella you only need the one resource. Everyone gets a game that way."

There is no rest for Mallow Barbarians in the weeks to come.

"We only take two weeks off every year," says Benny - and in a couple of weeks they travel to Dublin for a blitz, while Mallow host their own tournament on June 30.

Discussions to introduce a summer camp for the Barbarians players have also taken place, but there is still some work to be done on that project just yet.

For now the players and management are happy to continue as they have done to date.

Last weekend was their third time playing in Thomond Park - one of their goals when forming the club - and by working together they are ticking off the other targets on their list.

"This has brought happiness to a lot of people which is great," added Benny.

"We work together as a team, we're a good team. The Barbarians are what it's all about. Anything we do is for them.

"The players have come on in leaps and bounds in the last two years because they are responsible for it. All you have to do is show them respect for their abilities and they get that from us."

Irish Independent

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