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A game of three halves: Musgrave Park's mixed-ability World Cup to leave lasting legacy

The IMART World Cup, with 28 teams from around the world consisting of players with and without disabilities, kicks off in Cork on Monday.

Sunday's Well Rebels following an IMART World Cup warm-up game with Muskerry RFC at Musgrave Park.
Sunday's Well Rebels following an IMART World Cup warm-up game with Muskerry RFC at Musgrave Park.
Image: Maread Twohig

THERE’S A PALPABLE excitement in Alan Craughwell as he walks past a 40-by-10-metre marquee on the grounds of Musgrave Park.

“We call that our third half,” says the Galway man. “And that’s really the thing with mixed-ability rugby: we say it’s a game of three halves: two on the pitch and then the most important one which is back in the clubhouse and singing oul’ rugby songs and having a few scoops, y’know?”

Craughwell, who has worked for the last 17 years in the disability sector, is a tournament director of this month’s IMART (International Mixed Ability Tournament) World Cup which will take place at the famous old Cork ground from Sunday, 5 June until the following Friday, 10 June.

Muzzer will welcome from around the world 28 teams comprised of players with and without disabilities. The IMART World Cup will be the largest inclusive sporting event to take place in Europe this year.

On site on Thursday, as he bounds past somebody finishing off a bit of powerwashing and heads for the relative quiet of the West Stand, the founder of Ireland’s first ever mixed-ability rugby team can scarcely contain his excitement for the six-day festival that he has helped to bring to Leeside.

a-general-view-of-musgrave-park Musgrave Park will host this year's IMART World Cup. Source: Ben Brady/INPHO

“The social aspect of it is just something to behold,” says Craughwell, who set up the Sunday’s Well Rebels in 2014. “Most people don’t have in their everyday lives an immediate family member or somebody close to them who has a disability — or any barrier, be it autism or even severe depression or whatever. If you don’t have it in your immediate vicinity, you generally don’t encounter it. You don’t encounter it in your social life, you’re not going to see it in a nightclub or wherever you’re hanging out.

“That’s why the social aspect of this is so important. Some of the lads on our team would still be young — 20 or so. And, while I’m not 20 anymore, I often think that when I was growing up, social lives were a little bit more spontaneous, y’know? It seems now more like, ‘You have to go here, you have to do this.’

“And then our lads come to a social setting like this and all inhibition is gone. You have guys who may have disabilities or whatever but once the music starts, they don’t need 10 pints to get them going: they’re straight out there!

“And at this point, with Sunday’s Well Rebels, we’ve travelled all over Europe. We went to the 2016 Pro12 final between Connacht and Leinster in Murrayfield — there was actually a report done on us on The42 that day which trended higher than the report from the actual Pro12 final itself, I think,” Craughwell laughs. “We had a match the next day but after 14 or 15 hours of a journey to Edinburgh, the first place our players wanted to go to was straight into The Three Sisters!

“And that’s part of it. That’s part of the whole aspect of mixed-ability rugby and mixed-ability sport.

“But on the other side of it, then, while we’ll have a festival-style setup here for this year’s tournament with musical acts — bands, all sorts — we’ll also have a Quiet Zone. That’s supported by Laya [Healthcare] and Cork OT Services. It’s literally a chill zone, because one of the things we know when we go touring is that some of the lads don’t want all of the noise and hassle.

“One of the things you’d need to make sure of when you’re booking a hotel for a tour is that we have good WiFi so that people can go on their phones or tablets and do whatever — especially some of the guys who would be on the autistic spectrum: they might like to pull back to whatever base we’re in, and that’s totally cool too. That’s what being in a mixed-ability team teaches some of the players who don’t have disabilities: you’re going to have a few headbangers but you’re also going to have a few lads who are very quiet and only want to get involved on the social side of it to a level that suits them.”

alan-craughwell-and-paul-hogan-from-ballinasloe Ballinasloe men Alan Craughwell (bottom) and friend Paul Hogan supporting Connacht in Toulouse in 2012. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Mixed-ability rugby began in Wales in the ’90s with the formation of two teams, the Swansea Gladiators and the Llanelli Warriors. In 2013, Craughwell, a day-services manager in the Cope Foundation at the time, happened upon the concept when the picked up a copy of Rugby World magazine while awaiting treatment in his local physio clinic for a shoulder injury suffered while swimming.

“And the guys I was working with, so many of them were big, physical lads, obviously interested in Munster Rugby… But sometimes the only opportunity for an adult with a disability to be involved in their local club — be it Gaelic football, hurling, soccer, rugby, whatever — would be as a token waterboy or watergirl or whatever. And that’s it: you’re rolled out for the photos, and ‘here’s your jersey’ — but you could be nearly viewed more as a hindrance than a help and you’re not getting the real club experience either, y’know?

“It’s never sat right with me. If we’re trying to be a more inclusive society, and if we’re trying to actually do what we talk about, then you have to create the opportunity for people with disabilities to actually play.

I’ll always remember a conversation with one of the lads I was working with, James. I said to him, ‘Do you want to play rugby?’ And he says to me — and this is genuinely what he said to me: ‘If I’m pulling strings off shorts, I… effing… don’t want to play. I want to play the real game or no game at all.’ Obviously there’s adapted tag rugby for people with disabilities and people with intellectual disabilities, but he just didn’t feel as though he wanted to be playing that.

“And that’s fair. Like, it’s enshrined in the UN’s Convention on Human Rights that people are to have equal access to sporting activities within mainstream settings. He was kind of saying that in his own way.”

Craughwell decided to further explore the idea of bringing mixed-ability rugby to Ireland. His consequent travel and research was self-funded, although England’s Rugby Football Union paid for his accommodation on one trip to watch a match between Bradford Bumblebees and Llanelli Warriors, around which he was able to pick the brains of those involved.

He brought his newly accrued knowledge back to his open-water training partner, Liam Maher, a channel swimmer and Sunday’s Well clubman. From Maher, the idea of starting a mixed-ability rugby team was passed up along from club’s junior committee to its senior committee. The following Friday, 13 players attended The Well’s first ever mixed-ability training session. Maher remains their head coach.

“We have a squad of 50, now, in Sunday’s Well Rebels, and we’ve probably had another 50 people who have come through at various times,” Craughwell says. “Like, there aren’t many Junior teams who can say they have kept a squad consistently over a period of eight years!” he laughs.

“We’d have, on average, 30-40 guys out here training twice a week. On a given winter’s night, there’d be 30 or 40 here on a Friday evening, like.

“It’s a tonic on a Friday, and especially for some of the guys who don’t have disabilities who have done their week’s work. Generally, the profile of those guys who don’t have disabilities would be ex-players or players who aren’t playing senior rugby at that time; they’re interested in more sociable rugby than committing to a full league season when they have work or family commitments.

What amazes me is that those guys just keep coming back. But it’s different to other disabled sports provisions where, if you’re able-bodied, you’re automatically a volunteer. What’s key here is that the lads without disabilities get their own game out of it, they’re getting the actual rugby experience and they’re not just feeling like volunteers. And then, from the disability point of view, because we don’t grade or classify your disability, you’re just another player on the team as well. As we say, ‘We’re just another team,’ y’know?

“It can be hard for people to comprehend: we’re putting people with perceived disabilities into a mixed game, in a sport as physical as rugby.

But common sense is a big thing with this, too, like. We have uncontested scrums. And if someone is an experienced player coming up against somebody visibly weaker, they’re not just going to steamroll them as if they’re in the Aviva Stadium or whatever: you’ll definitely get Dickhead of the Day of you’re doing that, like. Or else one of the experienced players from the other team will sit you down — and you’ll have manners the next day, alright…

“But you’re still crossing the white line, it’s still real rugby. We have 83 games of rugby coming up, we have four women’s teams coming over for the first ever mixed-ability tournament for women.”

Craughwell and Maher’s Sunday’s Well Rebels won the first ever IMART World Cup, a 12-team tournament in Bradford in 2015. In 2017, an additional four teams competed in the Basque capital of Vitoria-Gasteiz.

Covid put paid to further editions until this year, when the Cork tournament will raise the bar with 28 teams across the men’s and women’s brackets.

Over 1,100 people will make their way to Leeside, including 160 players and coaches from Ecuador, Chile and Argentina alone. Further sides will ship in from Scotland, England, Wales, Spain, Italy, Belgium and Canada, while there is also a strong Irish representation: as well as the Rebels, the West Cork Jesters, Malone Tornadoes of Belfast, and Banbridge Barbarians will all compete in the men’s competition, the Ballincollig Trailblazers will fly the flag in the women’s, while De La Salle Palmerstown Vikings of Kilternan are also sending a delegation. “We honestly could have had 28 more teams,” Craughwell says.

The teams and their support staff will be put up in “almost an Olympic Village-style accommodation” in UCC, the IMART director explains, a feat made possible with the support of the European Erasmus+ Sport programme.

Tickets are free, and the turnstiles are expected to turn around 25,000 times over the course of the week, beginning with Sunday’s ‘parade of nations’ opening ceremony which will be attended by An Taoiseach Micheál Martin.

There are currently seven mixed-ability rugby teams in Ireland and the IRFU has since 2020 employed a disability inclusion officer, Belfast man David McKay, who previously worked in community development with Ulster Rugby.

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It is a position which likely would not exist were it not for mixed-ability rugby’s growth in this country in recent years.

“For the IRFU to be on board as tournament directors for this, for them to endorse it, is just massive,” Craughwell says. “What we need to do, now, is to bring that into other sports.”

With that reality in mind, he has himself also founded Mixed-Ability Sports Ireland (which has a working partnership with International Mixed Ability Sport), explaining that “the impact of this event cannot stop with the circus coming to Cork. We need to leave something behind and we need to think about what we’re doing in the future.”

Consequently, as an extension of this year’s rugby competition, Cork will host Ireland’s first ever mixed-ability international rowing regatta next Wednesday. The event is fully supported by both Cork Regatta Committee and Rowing Ireland, with boats landing over from the UK and Italy to compete alongside their Irish counterparts. Four local football teams will also “dip their toes” into mixed-ability action over the course of the week, while IABA-backed mixed-ability boxing and mixed-ability kin-ball will also take place as part of a celebratory week for inclusive sport.

Four days out from the opening ceremony, and five out from kick-off, Craughwell is in equal part raring to drive it on further and appreciative of how far it has already come.

“For me, it often comes back to one thing. When we started off playing here with Sunday’s Well Rebels, one of the lads; a typical junior player, now, not a tooth in his head, you’d know he’d been through a few scrapes!; we were out on the pitch and he said to me, ‘What do I call them?’”

There was no malice intended. The able-bodied player in question was simply searching for up-to-date terminology, correct labels, conscious of inadvertently offending one or more of his team-mates down the line.

“But even the idea of ‘them’ is very strong,” Craughwell says. “The word ‘them’ — to me anyway — implies that there’s a line between you and the other person.

“So I just said to him, ‘Call a guy by his…effing name!’

“And he turns around to me and he says, ‘Right, so.’

“And that player, by the way, has been one of the most loyal servants to this team down through the years. But it just took a moment to break down that particular barrier as he saw it.

“We all have a name: we don’t get christened with labels.

“And I totally understand that you could be conscious of offending somebody, you might wonder if someone is ‘a person with autism’ or ‘an autistic person’, or whatever the technicality might be in a specific circumstance. But you don’t necessarily need to know the technicalities or the diagnosis: all you really need to know is who they are.

“And in mixed-ability rugby, all you really need to do is go out and play and be a part of something… And then enjoy the third half afterwards!”

For more information about the IMART World Cup, or to book your free tickets, visit the official website here.

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