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Irish rugby club gives players with special needs a chance to shine

‘There is a sense of achievement for them and they can say they belong to a rugby club.’

'Nothing was happening, and now this is happening. It's fantastic.'
'Nothing was happening, and now this is happening. It's fantastic.'

Updated Dec 2nd 2021, 12:32 PM

WITH LAUGHTER, A rap dance celebration but still a competitive edge, tag rugby training sessions for players with special needs serve a greater purpose than personal glory.

The De La Salle Palmerston Eagles are a far cry from the days in Ireland when those with autism, Down’s Syndrome and other disabilities were kept out of sight.

“I had a Down’s Syndrome uncle and he was kind of half hidden away from the rest of society,” Dermot Hickey said while watching his son ‘Fast’ Eoin train along with 17 other male and female players.

“Nobody acknowledged they were there. Nothing was happening, and now this is happening. It’s fantastic.”

Ranging in age from the mid-teens to 60, the players are put through their paces by Dave Hicks, head coach since the team’s inception 10 years ago.

The Eagles are one of 34 disability tag teams in Ireland, part of the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) Spirit Programme.

In fact, there are six mixed ability sides — De La Salle will send its team, The Vikings, to next year’s World Cup in Cork.

While they train on a crisp Sunday morning, able-bodied players wander past to their sessions at the club situated in the foothills of the Wicklow Mountains south of Dublin.

“Coming to the club expands their social capital and contacts outside of their inner circle,” Hicks told AFP.

“Of course the game is important but also it is about social inclusion, which is more important.”

Gesturing to the neighbouring pitches, he said: “Take those kids there — they probably never met special needs people before coming here and did not know how to react to them.

“We bring them (the able-bodied players) on to play against us and that expands their social capital.”

Hicks raises money for the trips for away matches through quiz nights and his stylish woodcuts while the IRFU and the elite Leinster club provide equipment and kit.

He says he does “not need to know” what the conditions of the players are as “I’m not their doctor.”

“They are here to play and enjoy rugby and I want them to be happy smiling faces at the end of a session,” he said.

“It’s a big deal for me but it’s an even bigger one for them.”

- ‘Sense of achievement’ -

Hicks, nearing 70, may be modest about his importance to the Eagles and Vikings, others not so much.

“Dave is an extraordinary man,” David McKay, IRFU Disability and Inclusion Officer, told AFP.

“He would give you the shirt off his back if you needed it.

“His enthusiasm and passion for disability sport is something I wish I could bottle up and give to everyone.”

action-between-de-la-salle-palmerston-eagles-and-seapoint-dragons Action from a half-time minis game between De La Salle Palmerston Eagles and Seapoint Dragons at a Leinster Heineken Cup game in 2013. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

That translates to the players and the fun they have.

There were laughs aplenty when David Humphreys — named after the European Cup-winning former Ulster and Ireland fly-half — celebrated a try with an impressive rap dance.

Deborah Bolton too got in on the try-scoring act and, with arms raised, she said: “I’ve earned my lunch!”

The 27-year-old is used to performing in front of an audience as she is also an actress and has acted on television and stage.

“It is really enjoyable, all that running around,” she said.

“I love meeting new people and making friends, it’s great for me.”

On the sidelines, her father Billy beams with pride.

“Socially this is good for us all, there are many strands and benefits to it,” he smiled.

“There is a sense of achievement for them and they can say they belong to a rugby club.

“It gives you something to talk about with one’s daughter and son, it sparks interaction.”

Sometimes though the interaction with their opponents can be overly generous.

This was the case with Rachel Murray, like Deborah a star in another sphere having taken bronze in gymnastics at the 2019 Special Olympics.

“Rachel fancies one of the kids who plays for Coolmine so she gives him the rugby ball and he scores a try,” says Hicks.

“Then he hugs her and so now the lads won’t give her the ball when we are playing Coolmine!” he chuckles.

That is evidently forgotten as the squad and volunteers gather round and sing a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday” to Rachel before wrapping up the session.

As Hicks says, in the end the result is inconsequential.

“As we say in the Eagles, ‘We have never been beaten nor have we won a game either.’”

© – AFP, 2021

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