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Dublin: 11 °C Tuesday 7 July, 2020

'Stephen has special needs, but whenever Tom could pass a ball to him, he did. If there was a ruck, he'd drag him in'

Stephen Lee and Tom Farrell battled alongside one another for Coolmine RFC as kids, with each man going on to achieve success in an Irish shirt.

Connacht centre Tom Farrell alongside Stephen Lee, who will represent Ireland at the Special Olympics in Abu Dhabi next month.
Connacht centre Tom Farrell alongside Stephen Lee, who will represent Ireland at the Special Olympics in Abu Dhabi next month.
Image: Jennifer Lee, Coolmine RFC

“IT IS AMAZING,” club president Sean Lee says warmly. “Just thinking back to those horrible wet Saturdays and Sundays, Under 10s, the two boys togging out together and heading off into battle. Little did we think back then they would each be wearing an Irish jersey all these years later.”

It was an exciting morning at Coolmine Rugby Club a fortnight ago. Flocks of players came together as one of the club’s own — their proud prodigal son — returned to his old stomping ground to volunteer his time, running through training sessions, signing autographs and taking a whole heap of photos with smiling, giddy faces. Kids and their parents, alike, queuing for selfies.

Tom Farrell had only arrived back in Dublin the day before. The promising Connacht centre had just spent a week away with Joe Schmidt’s squad in Portugal for some final warm-weather training ahead of this month’s Six Nations.

But he was more than happy to be back where it all began. Back to where he got his start in rugby all those years ago on the sodden fields in Ashbrook, west Dublin. Farrell met more than a few familiar faces upon returning to his old club two weeks ago, but one face in particular he immediately recognised. His old team-mate, Stephen.

Tom Farrell Tom Farrell was named in Joe Schmidt's Ireland squad for this month's Six Nations. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“When we saw Tom coming over on the Saturday morning at the clubhouse, I just gave him a big, huge hug,” says Sean, Stephen Lee’s dad and Coolmine RFC president.

“We were all chatting and catching up. Tom was bigging Stephen up, praising his accomplishments being an Olympian with Team Ireland, and he was playing down his own success with Connacht.”

The pair, Tom and Stephen, go back a long way. They played together with Coolmine’s mini’s team as children, watching each other’s backs as they battled side-by-side through good and bad, victories and defeats.

When they were reunited two weeks ago, it was a moment to reflect on both men’s successes.

1549708197500 Farrell and Lee pictured on an Under 12 tour together with Coolmine RFC back in 2006.

Farrell, on the one hand, recently becoming the first player from Coolmine to ever be called into a senior Ireland squad, chosen by Joe Schmidt for this year’s Six Nations. Lee, a two-time Olympian who won gold at last summer’s National Games in Abbotstown and who will travel to Abu Dhabi next month to represent the Irish basketball team at the 2019 Special Olympics World Summer Games.

Having gone their separate ways a decade ago, each has done their club and families proud. Two athletes who played side-by-side, both with different strengths and capabilities, who have gone on to represent their country. From humble beginnings, they haven’t done too badly — an Olympian and an Ireland international.

“We’ve had youth internationals represent Ireland in rugby before, David Hawkshaw is the Ireland U20 captain, but now to see Tom called up to the senior squad, and to see Stephen become a double-Olympian is just beyond belief,” says club president Lee. “It’s such huge achievements for both of them. We’re just so proud of both the lads.”

Special Olympics Ireland official launch Team Ireland for the 2019 Word Summer Games Stephen Lee (middle row, second from left) will represent Team Ireland at the 2019 Special Olympics Summer Games in basketball. Source: Harry Murphy/SPORTSFILE

Farrell won’t feature against Scotland this afternoon, but the 25-year-old has long been tipped to have a promising future ahead of him in a green shirt very soon. Especially given some of his explosive performances in midfield for Andy Friend’s Connacht side in the Guinness Pro14 this season.

Farrell showed promise from an early age with Coolmine. Sean Lee remembers him as a leader and a natural-born talent — the Ireland international actually starting off as a physical and imposing prop in the front row. But he also remembers the way Farrell treated his son when they played together as team-mates, the ways in which he helped Stephen feel included in the heat of battle.

Quite early Tom stood out as a class-act,” he explains. “Definitely we could see we had a special talent on our hands. He always led from the front. When my son Stephen was playing, he always looked out for him on the pitch too.

“Stephen has special needs, but whenever Tom could pass a ball to him, he did. If there was a ruck, he’d drag him into the ruck and clear it out. It sounds like ‘Roy of the Rovers’ stuff, but he was a fabulous young fella and still is to this day.”

The duo played for a number of years growing up together with Coolmine, but eventually there came a point where Stephen’s learning disability meant he could no-longer play mainstream rugby, explains his dad.

“Stephen is one of these young fellas, obviously he has the disability, but he just loves any and every sport. He still plays with Coolmine, with our tag rugby team: the Puma’s.

“He plays soccer and he plays basketball, floorball too. When he was younger it was okay playing rugby. When all the kids were younger and smaller around ten or eleven, he was able to play on the mainstream team.

Source: Irish Rugby TV/YouTube

“But as he got a bit older, it did create problems and there may have been a danger if Stephen was running down the field and he got bowled over with a tackle. So it got to a stage where we had to make the decision that he couldn’t play mainstream rugby any more.

“But fortunately there are different outlets in disability rugby, which has come on hugely in the last five or six years with the IRFU and especially within Leinster, where it has been very successful.

Stephen just loves sport, but really loves the rugby. Tom was very good to him, he would genuinely look out for Stephen and protect him on the pitch. Tom met him on Saturday and there was just a huge big hug between them. It had been more than a decade since they played together. It was very emotional for us as parents actually.”

Jennifer Lee, Stephen’s sister, coaches Coolmine’s tag rugby team, the Puma’s. “It’s an all-inclusion team,” she says. “Which means it covers people who have intellectual or physical disabilities. It’s excellent because a lot of times children who don’t have an intellectual disability, for example they might have cerebral palsy, can’t play mainstream rugby, because if they got a bump it can have serious repercussions.

“Normally they will play with the mini’s up to the age of about 12. But as they get older they generally can’t keep up to the same level, so that’s why the tag team is excellent because we have a mixture of players who have different levels of intellectual and physical disabilities. It’s amazing, really, to see the blitzes and the leagues and to see everyone playing. Wheelchair users can play, everybody is involved.”

Stephen Tom and Sean Tom Farrell, Stephen Lee, and Coolmine RFC president Sean Lee.

Making everyone feel included is what is most important, Jennifer says. Sport is about competition, naturally creating winners and losers in the scramble for victory, but it is also about friendship, social bonding and making sure everybody gets the chance to be a part.

That is what made Tom Farrell’s return to Coolmine a fortnight ago an emotional occasion, she says. The fact that he has gone on to feature in senior Ireland squads recently is an incredibly proud achievement for Coolmine, but more than that she recalls how he displayed a leadership to make everybody feel a part of the game.

When we were introducing them Tom turned and said ‘Stephen, how are you?!’ He remembered him and there were no introductions necessary. Stephen was thrilled and they were talking about the old days of how they used to go away on club trips together in Wales and Scotland.

“Stephen loved being a part of that team and Tom was excellent to Stephen. And that’s always a really strong trait — someone that goes out of their way from a young age to include people with special needs is such a testament to their character. It’s really great to see. That was a really strong character trait of Tom’s.

“That’s all Stephen and pretty much anyone with special needs wants — to be involved,” Jennifer says. “There is obviously the element that they know they’re probably not playing at the same level, but to have that inclusion and to feel like they’re a part of the team — that’s what anyone in life wants. It’s just a case of it being a little bit more difficult for someone with special needs to get involved.

Tom Farrell Farrell has been in brilliant form for Connacht this season. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“Tom really went out of his way to make sure Stephen felt included, which was excellent. Stephen really benefited from it on a social level by being around people like Tom. It really brought him forward and gave him confidence that he may not have had if he wasn’t part of a team. That kind of leadership and that social aspect of rugby is really important.”

Next month Stephen Lee will travel to Abu Dhabi, having been chosen to represent Team Ireland at the 2019 Special Olympics. Last year he secured a gold medal on behalf of the Eastern Region at the National Games, scoring a basket against Munster during the final at the National Sports Complex in Abbotstown last June.

It will be the second time he will represent his country at an Olympics, having travelled to Graz in Austria to play for Ireland in floorball at the Winter World Games back in 2017. Having initially cut his teeth playing rugby with Coolmine, he has gone on to even greater heights, excelling across a multitude of different sports. Just like his old team-mate Tom, he too has represented his country with valour and distinction.

“It’s so emotional seeing people progress to that level,” Stephen’s sister Jennifer adds. “Hearing that someone is an Irish international or an Olympian for Team Ireland is amazing, but that moment when you actually see them wear that green gear and you see someone in a crowd cheering them on representing their country, it actually blows you away.

“The level of pride you feel when someone you know and care about represents their country in sports that you adore yourself, you can’t put into words how proud a moment that is.”

Back together again to share memories of their experiences as team-mates a fortnight ago — a month in which Tom could make his Ireland debut at the Six Nations and a few weeks prior to Stephen representing Ireland in Abu Dhabi — it seemed fitting that the pair would reunite on the same pitch at Coolmine where it all began.

From rucking together side-by-side in the heat of the battle, going on separate paths to international achievement, Tom Farrell and Stephen Lee have enjoyed a common, uniting experience of success for their club and for their country. From those wet, rainy Saturdays out in the fields in Ashbrook, the pair have each come a long way.

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Aaron Gallagher

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