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Ireland's only mixed-ability rugby side are defending their world title in Spain this week

Sunday’s Well Rebels field a side made up of players ‘with and without disabilities’.

THIS WEEK THE second-ever Mixed Ability Rugby World Tournament is taking place in Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain.

Ireland’s only mixed ability side and current world champions, the Sunday’s Well Rebels, are hoping to retain their title.

Mixed ability rugby is a variant of rugby union. Both teams field a mix of players with and without disabilities. There are a couple of rule changes, such as uncontested scrums and rolling substitutes, to facilitate the players and make the game safer. Otherwise it is much the same the regular full contact game.

Mixed ability rugby was started in Wales in the 1990s by two teams, the Swansea Gladiators and the Llanelli Warriors. The game has grown since then and now there are teams all around the world.

At the tournament, 12 teams from eight nations—Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, France, Italy, Argentina and Spain—will take part. There will also be delegations from as far afield as Mexico, who are there to observe and learn. In total, close to 500 people are expected to play.

The game came to Ireland in 2014 when Alan Craughwell, a manager in the COPE Foundation, collaborated with Cork city rugby team, Sunday’s Well RFC. Craughwell had seen the game played in the UK, and thought it would be of benefit to the people with intellectual disabilities that the COPE Foundation supports. Liam Maher and Ralph O’Leary, members of Sunday’s Well RFC, agreed with Craughwell’s proposal and won over the club’s senior committee, and so the Rebels began.

Rebels-vs-Bumbles-2015-Final-Harry-Guinness Source: Harry Guinness

The first Mixed Ability Rugby World Tournament was held in Bradford, England in August, 2015. The host side, the Bradford and Bingley Bumbles, were formed in 2009 when Anthony Brooke, a player with cerebral palsy, wrote to the RFU asking to be allowed play full contact rugby. He had no interest in watered down versions like tag or touch. The RFU agreed that he was as entitled as anyone else to play rugby.

In the first round of the pool stages, the Rebels faced the Scottish Clan. Backed by the Scottish Rugby Union, every player on the Scottish side was granted an official Scottish cap. The game ended in a 14-14 draw.

Both the Clan and the Rebels went on to beat the third team in their pool, English side Castleford RFC, leaving them tied at the top. Mixed ability rugby, however, is about more than just points scored; it’s also about the inclusive “Spirit of the Game”. The judges deemed the Rebels to be the side that better embodied what mixed ability rugby is all about so they progressed to the semis.

Clara Auvergne, the French team in the competition, were their opponents. After a back and forth game, the Rebels finished the second half strong and won 31-14 to make it through to the finals against the host team.

The Rebels clashed with the Bumbles on the final day of the tournament in front of hundreds of people. As the Rebels entered the grounds, spectators and other teams alike began to sing Ireland’s Call.

After a strong start, the Rebels led 26-5 at half time. The Bumbles, however, were not going to roll over. The majority of the second half was dominated by the English side who brought the score up to 26-19 with five minutes to go. Through sheer grit the Rebels managed to withstand the Bumbles last attacks, and turned the ball over just as the clock ticked down to zero. With a kick to touch, they were the Mixed Ability Rugby World Champions.

The-Team-with-the-Cup-Harry-Guinness Source: Harry Guinness

With two years more experience under their belt, the Rebels are keen to defend their title and confident they can do it. The Rebels’ Head Coach, Maeve D’Arcy, says, “The lads have worked hard this season on their game play and getting the fundamentals right.

“This has been our busiest season to date in our three and half years of existence.”

The team captain, Joe McCarthy thinks every side will be looking for the Rebels’ scalp.

“We know a lot of the teams but there are a few new challengers with two teams coming from Argentina who will be strong. Also the Stags, a new side backed by English Premiership team Worcester Warrior’s will be coming to compete but we have trained hard,” he says.

The Rebels start their title defence  with their first pool game against the Shropshire Stags. On Thursday, the Rebels will face off against their other pool mates, Clan Tri Espurna, one of the competitions’ Spanish sides. A win over the Spanish would have them in a semi-final on the same day. The final then takes place on the Friday.

Whatever the result of the competition, the Sunday’s Well Rebels are a success. The team continues to tackle the limiting assumptions about people with disabilities. Eddie Keleher, whose son Lorcan plays for the Rebels, sums it up perfectly. “We now have two sons who are proud members of [Sunday’s Well RFC].”

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Harry Guinness

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