- Headingley Carnegie Stadium plays host to eleventh National Disability Tag Rugby Festival
- Rugby Football Union and Leeds City Council maintain great partnership
Photo: RFU Archive
Twenty years ago, the Rugby Football Union and Leeds City Council collaborated to stage a rugby tournament for people with disabilities. It was staged at Morley RUFC and was organised by Tony Biscombe, the RFU North Technical Administrator, and Ken Black, the Leeds City Council Sports Development Officer for People with Disabilities.
Then, the non-contact version of the game – widely known as touch-and-pass in those days – was branded New Image Rugby and has since expanded dramatically to become one of rugby’s most productive marketing tools and an ideal method for introducing some of the basic skills to newcomers to the game, as well as the less able.
The pioneers of rugby for disabled people would have been moved to see their work still going strong at Headingley Carnegie Stadium recently when the eleventh National Disability Tag Rugby Festival was held on the immaculate turf which is home to Leeds Carnegie and Leeds Rhinos.
This year, 24 teams and over 200 players took part in the festival, which caters for people with learning disabilities or moderate physical or sensory impairments.
Times have changed since those early days at Scatcherd Lane. Now, the event is backed by both the Rugby Football Union (RFU) and the Rugby Football League (RFL). New Image has evolved into Tag Rugby and the laws have been refined to make them more user-friendly to players from any sporting background.
But, while the regulations may have been tweaked down the years, two vital constants have remained – the continued backing of Leeds City Council and the transparent joy that the tournament brings to everyone involved.
“We sat down and adapted the rules a little bit to make it use friendly," said Andy Wilson, Leeds City Council Rugby League Development Officer. "The great thing is that because we have a generic set of rules, it’s so easy for a rugby union school or a rugby league school or a soccer school to adapt.
“We do know that rugby is the number one sport that disability groups want to play. Leeds City Council have remained very much behind the programme since those early days.”
One of the organising team drawn from both codes of rugby was former Rotherham RFC second-row forward John Dudley, now an RFU Community Rugby Coach.
“These are fantastic days,” he says. “If these were mainstream kids, they’d be arguing about this and that, taunting each other about winning and losing but for the young and more mature players here today, there is simply joy at being involved.
“They aren’t stressed about who scores – there’s a smile on everyone’s face and a sense of well-being. They’re all buzzing and having a good time, but they are also getting exercise. There is also the incentive to get involved in the build-up that comes from being excited about coming here.
“There are also life skills involved, like learning to work with other people and we see teams and players happy to help out the opposition if it’s needed. You also see significant improvements in a few hours as people grasp the concept of how Tag Rugby works and what you need to do to be good at it.
“It’s so pleasing for the coaches because we see people picking up new skills all the time and there is no bickering. It’s a terrific day and underlines what tag rugby has to offer.”
Central Yorkshire Rugby Development Officer Alex Bowden added: “Most of the teams come from around Leeds, but we have schools and learning centres from further afield who get involved and that spreads the word to other parts of the county and beyond. We have teams from Hull here today.
“Numbers are up from last year overall and the senior contingent has increased again after dipping last year.
“Obviously, getting a lovely sunny day helps the enjoyment but, really, it’s the way people’s expressions radiate pure joy that tells the true story of the National Disability Tag Festival.”