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Mixed abilities but united in message of inclusion in rugby and team spirit

Sunday’s Well Rebels are leading the way as the World Cup comes to Ireland next year

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Sunday's Well Rebels at a training in Cork city. Photo: Daragh McSweeney/Provision

Sunday's Well Rebels at a training in Cork city. Photo: Daragh McSweeney/Provision

Mixed abilities

Mixed abilities

Sunday’s Well Rebels mixed ability rugby training in Cork city. Pic Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

Sunday’s Well Rebels mixed ability rugby training in Cork city. Pic Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

Sunday’s Well Rebels mixed ability rugby training in Cork city. Pic Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

Sunday’s Well Rebels mixed ability rugby training in Cork city. Pic Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

Sunday’s Well Rebels mixed ability rugby training in Cork city. Pic Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

Sunday’s Well Rebels mixed ability rugby training in Cork city. Pic Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

Sunday’s Well Rebels mixed ability rugby training in Cork city. Pic Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

Sunday’s Well Rebels mixed ability rugby training in Cork city. Pic Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

Sunday’s Well Rebels mixed ability coach Brian Coughlan. Pic Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

Sunday’s Well Rebels mixed ability coach Brian Coughlan. Pic Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

Sunday’s Well Rebels mixed ability rugby training in Cork city. Pic Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

Sunday’s Well Rebels mixed ability rugby training in Cork city. Pic Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

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Sunday's Well Rebels at a training in Cork city. Photo: Daragh McSweeney/Provision

It is a cold Friday evening in Musgrave Park, Cork. Thankfully, the rain has stopped but no matter the weather, there was no deterring the men who have turned out for rugby training in Sunday’s Well RFC.

From the sideline, there is little difference to what you would see in any rugby club across the country: fitness routines, lineouts drills etc. It is only on a second glance that you notice some differences: the diversity of players in age and ability. Some have never played rugby before this team, some used to play in the All-Ireland League (AIL), and one is on his second session, having seen enough to come back for more.

These are the Sunday’s Well Rebels, the first Mixed Ability team in Ireland, having been established in 2014.

Mixed Ability rugby is virtually the same as the rugby you’d see at an AIL game, with a few key differences: it’s still 15-a-side, still full contact, still rugby, but the scrums are uncontested, and there is a mixture of ‘disabled’ and ‘non-disabled’ bodies in every team.

Bringing the game to Ireland was the brainchild of Alan Craughwell, chair of the disability working group for the IRFU; Sunday’s Well committee members Liam Maher and Ralph O’Leary; players Danny Lynch and James Healy who presented it to the club, who “in fairness to them were brilliant about it,” says Craughwell.

“I didn’t think it would work,” says Ray Dennehy, the team medic, “I thought it would be one injury and that’s us done!”

And, indeed, that’s one of the concerns around Mixed Ability rugby, that because of the player’s mixed abilities that it makes them more vulnerable to the game’s elements. With the modifications, and the removal of the contested scrum, this has not been the case – and the game has been getting more popular with five men’s and one women’s Mixed Ability rugby teams across Ireland.

David McKay, IRFU Disability and Inclusion Officer, takes part in the training, stepping aside to answer questions about the Mixed Ability programme, and is jokingly berated by players for taking a break as the session gets increasingly difficult.

“It’s really special to see all the Mixed Ability teams doing so well and getting back on the pitch,” says McKay. “A lot of our players involved in the teams lost that connection with their friends and their community over lockdown, it just shows that rugby is more than just a game.

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“Being part of a team is that belonging, it means everything – and being part of the rugby family is something our disability programme gives, whether that be Mixed, Disability Tag or Vision Impaired rugby.

“Having played against the Rebels and being a member of the Malone Tornadoes (a Mixed Ability team in Ulster) the excitement is building for the World Cup and something I can’t wait to play in and be a part of.”

Sunday’s Well was the first Mixed Ability team in Ireland and now have five men’s teams and one women’s team. The game, adds McKay “is not only for players that may have physical or a learning disability but for everyone – including players that played the game all their life, the opportunity to still play the game and pass their knowledge to new players.”

Game time is hard to come by, but it has improved since they started out. They can now play against the other Mixed Ability groups, as well as the junior thirds of other clubs, who will understand the rule amendments that make the game work.

“They play vets, third and fourth teams, but we want to grow from our six teams,” continues McKay. “Hopefully, the World Cup in Cork is the springboard to more teams forming across Ireland. It’s going to be an exciting few years.”

The parents on the sideline are thrilled to see them back playing – they had to take up cricket over the summer, just to see each other – and are delighted that they can go into the clubhouse bar, now that Covid-19 restrictions have been lifted. This particular evening is the first time it has been back open since it all shut down.

They made do with the weekly meetings over Zoom, but it just wasn’t the same.

“It’s just fun, it’s genuinely good craic,” says Craughwell. “Some of us work in the area of disabilities, so you think the last thing you would think about doing is coming out of a Friday night and giving your time, but I don’t give my time, I entirely enjoy it.

“There’s fellas in there with no reason to know someone with a disability, but, like, you should hear that place, the craic! There’s genuine friendships.

“Some people’s concept of mixed abilities is ‘oh, we’re out helping the people with mixed abilities’, nobody’s helping anybody! We are helping each other as a team, from the lowest ability right up to the highest ability.”

It has been life-changing, for both parents and players, providing a social life, a physical outlet and an authentic community.

Sheila Philpott tells me that although she’d watched her two other sons playing for Highfield, before Sunday’s Well Rebels, she never thought she’d be able to support her son Richie in the same way, which was hugely disappointing as it was his “dream to play rugby since he was 18”.

He’s now 32, one of the remaining members of the original Rebels team, and the captain of the Irish team.

“There’s a very real sense of community, you get that from the moment you come in the clubhouse or step out onto the field,” Richie says.

“The very moment you step on and meet the lads, you’re part of a family – and, like, every night you’re well aware of that because every ruck, every scrum, every lineout, every maul, they’re all with ya, they’re all behind ya, you’re never alone, that’s a great feeling.”

Another player, Colm Quinlan, agrees.

“I’ve been playing with Rebels since 2017, I got involved when another player asked me to call out one night and just help out at the training for one night, but I loved it, had great craic with the lads. It’s a nice easy-going level of rugby, it’s full contact but without all the stress and drama, I suppose. I loved it from the first night and loved it every night since,” says Colm.

“They’ve kind of grown up as a bunch together – and what you see is the friendships, the genuine friendships and there’s no labels here,” says Craughwell. “Some have gone from boys to men in here,” adds team medic Dennehy.

Wrapped in coats on the sideline and covered in mud on the pitch, it is – hopefully – a far cry from what June/July 2022 will look like when the Mixed Abilities Rugby World Cup comes to Cork. With more than 1,000 players attending from 14 countries, the place will be buzzing, especially after the pandemic delayed it.

Ireland’s success rate in the Mixed Ability World Cup stands to them: having won in Bradford in 2015, and as finalists in the Basque country in 2017, so playing one at home brings significant expectations.

Richie is captaining the side this coming summer, and he’s feeling good.

“It’s really great to be involved. It’s a huge honour [being captain], I never could have imagined being picked before the great pandemic, it’s a huge huge honour and it’s a real feather in my cap. We’re really confident, really excited.”

“This is our home tournament, Musgrave Park is the stage, we are the main act, and we’re going to put on a hell of a show.”


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