One of rugby league’s enduring qualities is that it remains at the heart of communities across its traditional base in the north of England. Yet while the game can all too often be harsh on itself, it retains the ability to break down barriers like few other sports.
“There is a clear difference in the values of rugby league compared to other sports,” says John Hughes, the founder and creator of Learning Disability Super League, which launches in May.
The initiative is an adapted version of rugby league aimed at those with learning disabilities and autism. As Hughes suggests, the move reflects the community-driven aspect of the game. “Some sports would see this as a commercial transaction but people in rugby league understand it’s about much more than that,” he says.
Super League’s annual Magic Weekend, on 25 and 26 May at Anfield, will double as LDSL’s launch. Twelve clubs – including Leeds, Wigan and St Helens – will debut teams for players with learning disabilities and autism in conjunction with Community Integrated Care, the charity that has helped bring about the new competition. That launch will include games on the pitch and in front of one of rugby league’s biggest crowds of the year.
For Hughes, who has worked within the professional game at Widnes, it will be the realisation of a long-held dream, having monitored the growth of Physical Disability Rugby League in recent years.
“This is undoubtedly going to be the most inclusive sports competition in the world,” says Hughes, who now works for CIC. “It fits perfectly within the ethics and footprint of rugby league, and what the sport stands for.”
The rules are modified to cater for the needs of the players. Tries are not counted – with the aim to encourage players to take part – and players are “tackled” by having a tag on their waists removed. “It’s important to recognise that it’s the same level of achievement for one LDSL player to catch the ball as it is for someone else to run 100m. That’s why we’re focusing on getting people playing,” Hughes says.
CIC has worked closely with the 12 clubs to help educate their coaches and staff on working with the wide-ranging abilities of those involved and will next month host the foundations of all the clubs for specialist training to prepare them for the Magic Weekend. The project has captured the attention of those playing the sport at the highest level.
“These guys never would have thought they could play for their team, in their town,” says the St Helens prop, Luke Douglas, who coaches his team’s LDSL side every week in his spare time. “It’s very humbling to be involved.”
Douglas is not the only one. “To see the players pull the shirt on and play for the first time … it’ll be special,” says the Warrington hooker Danny Walker, who helped launch Widnes’s LDSL team before switching clubs last winter. “Football, cricket … when they see what this is about, they’ll all want a piece.”
Other big names within the sport have also pledged support. “We can all kick stones about things that happen in rugby league, but it can be a force for so much good at times,” says the former Great Britain wing turned TV pundit, Brian Carney, who is an LDSL ambassador. “To create something like this with so few resources is incredible and a testament to everything fantastic about our game.”
Hughes’s vision is already bearing fruit. “There’s a young guy called JP who plays for St Helens,” he says. “He’s vocal about following in the footsteps of his heroes and he’s gone from being shy and quiet to being much more confident because he’s in a team environment. He’s just one example of how this is transforming lives; there are hundreds more.”
Hughes believes the sport can benefit at elite level. With 1.6 million people working in the social care sector and almost 900,000 adults in need of long-term social care, there is a market for the sport to reach.
“I’ve seen some training sessions already and what it means to the players and the family members is very humbling.,” says Hughes. “It is not an exaggeration to suggest this is life-changing for those involved, and gamechanging for rugby league’s profile,” says Hughes. Give it five years, and plenty of other sports will be copying this. But when they’re doing it, don’t forget that rugby league was there first.”