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

Llanelli Star - - FRONT PAGE -

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.

Gwilym Lewis

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.

Gwilym Lewis

Pic­ture: Adrian White

Mem­bers of the Llanelli War­riors with club chair­man Gwilym Lewis, front.

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