The rugby team that’s having a ball...on and off the field!
CHRISTIE BANNON reports on the successful Llanelli Warriors rugby team which has around 50 players on its books – half of whom are registered disabled
Fathers, brothers and sisters have all played here. It’s all about inclusion. We try to take away from the disabilities with a shared common goal to play rugby together, which is quite a lot to have in common.
WHEN the Llanelli Warriors formed in 1995 they wanted to be treated just like any other club.
A team that welcomed adults with learning disabilities, whatever their ability, and encouraged them to get stuck in as much as possible.
Now, nearly 25 years later, this philosophy still remains very much intact, with players with autism, down’s syndrome and cerebral palsy all taking to the field to make their mark.
The team originally came together to represent the Heol Goffa day centre for people with learning difficulties, after Swansea Gladiators challenged them to create a side.
The rivals took part in a clash at Gorseinon RFC which resulted in a draw, before a rematch at Stradey Park saw the Warriors triumph.
A rematch was set for the following year on the Warriors’ home turf and parts of it were even televised on S4C’s Heno. After so much interest in the fixture, the club has never looked back.
Gwilym Lewis is not only the club’s chairman, but also coaches, and even puts on the kit to play himself.
“Currently we’ve got about 50 players who play over the year and represent the team throughout the season,” he said. “About half of them are registered disabled in some way. It’s mainly learning disabilities, but some players have a physical disability and some have both, but it gives them the opportunity to play rugby.
“We’ve got a mixture of players and we try not to focus on the disability. Our philosophy is to be a normal rugby team.
“Fathers, brothers and sisters have all played here. It’s all about inclusion.
“We try to take away from the disabilities with a shared common goal to play rugby together, which is quite a lot to have in common. We are all rugby players first.”
Gwilym has been a part of the Warriors for 22 years, as he happened to be working at the day centre.
He added: “I started working in a day centre in Llanelli and was asked ‘do you play rugby?’ It went from there and now I head the coaching, I’m chairman and play too. Rugby is something I understand.
“We’re not the oldest club, but we recently had a big achievement of reaching 300 fixtures. This is our 23rd season.”
When the club started out, Burry Port RFC was there to offer them a helping hand as well as kit to wear. Their affiliation with the Warriors is just as strong today as it was back in the 1990s, with the team still using the club’s pit-ch for matches.
Gary James, vice-chairman of Burry Port RFC, said: “We’ve had a long association with the Warriors. We helped the Warriors set up and we lent them our kit for them to play in. Their first three seasons they played in Burry Port kit.
“We set up the Origins Cup where the Warriors play Burry Port RFC every year and we’ve also set up a cabinet upstairs for the Warriors.
“They are their own entity now. They’re an inspirational group and we love them in Burry Port.
“It is the purest form of integration.”
The team face regular fixtures throughout the season, with many of their opponents being ablebodied - not that it puts them off.
The games are full-contact and the players definitely aren’t hesitant about putting their bodies on the line.
Gwilym said: “It’s a weekly thing. One way or the other we’re either training or we have a game at weekends. The WRU arrange some games for us and help with the training. There are a lot of friendships within the team. It’s a nice, inclusive environment. We’re all there having a pint together after the game.
“With disability, people can feel a bit awkward but we take away from the disability not to mark players out.
“Experience is a better indicator as you could have an able-bodied player who hasn’t played and a disabled player who’s played for years. It’s all about experience.
“It does mix very well and we’re as good as any team, as we’re close.”
Players from 18 right up to their mid-50s make their way to The Barn, at Parc y Scarlets, to train on a regular basis to make sure they’re as ready as they can be to face their next battle.
Andrew Davies, from Dafen, has a learning disability and has been with the Warriors for the last six years, following in the footsteps of his family who have also played rugby over the years.
“I started playing rugby with the boys and quite enjoyed it,” the 28-yearold said. “We are quite a rugby family as my dad played and my uncle did. My mum used to watch me play, but she passed away.
“My favourite part about playing for the Warriors is tackling everyone.”
Some of them are so dedicated to their team they are willing to travel miles to put on their beloved jersey.
Lloyd Crawley, aged 23, who plays second-row, makes the trip from Abercrave to Carmarthenshire to play after his friend introduced him to the team.
“I’ve just been playing this season,” he said.
“Everyone’s very nice in
the team and I enjoy the feeling of playing.
“I’ve scored two tries this season and my inspiration comes from Adam Jones because he lives quite close to where my friends live.”
Tomos Hall, 21, from Llanelli, who has a learning disability, agreed team spirit was an important part of the club. “I’ve been with the club for five years,” the flanker said.
“The first game I played for them was against Burry Port and I scored the winning try. The boys here are wonderful.”
Their most recent game against the Primary Eddas, a team made up of former Trinity students in Carmarthen, saw the Warriors pull off a remarkable comeback in the second half to win 46-43.
The ex-students’ first game was against the Warriors, and the two sides have met for the last three years as a tradition.
Dion Mitchell-Lewis, chairman of the club and Gwilym’s son, said: “It gives the Warriors a game and it’s also a good excuse to meet and have a beer.”
We are all rugby players first.
Members of the Llanelli Warriors with club chairman Gwilym Lewis, front.