In a year where COVID-19 forced the world to hit the brakes and stop, the rugby players at IncluIndus turned this opportunity to adapt to the current norms, make new friends and grow as a team. Unable to play matches since 2019, their expectations are high for the coming year; their coaches look forward to scheduling a match before summer and aspire to make their team bloom into a family. Álvaro Casás talked to them.
Just outside El Zoco shopping mall, on a windy Thursday evening, a group of 20 teenagers and adults get their temperature checked before heading to the changing rooms. A ritual they’ve been doing since the end of lockdown. It’s unusual and time-consuming but unquestionably necessary.
The players joyfully chat while getting checked, some wait outside looking for any late teammates while others grab the rugby balls and head out to the field. Dress code: comfortable clothing, rugby boots, mouth guard and helmet, if you want one. Always the same.
While getting dressed the last players arrive at the field, hurrying up at the temperature control they can hear a loud “vamos!” from their practice location. Training has started. You can hear coach Maguila shout “ten, nine, eight, seven…”, the familiar cue that warm-up is about to start.
Unlike conventional rugby, warm up in mixed ability sports is fundamental for the players. The mind, like our body, needs to loosen up. With their backs against the wall, in a squat position, they share their day with each other as heat on their legs starts to stack up.
Squat down, squat up. Up and down, up and down, up and down. Execute and repeat.
Coaches help out, some carers join in and various brave parents try to follow their rhythm. A couple of giggles escape from their mouths as some stop to take a breath of “unfiltered air”; as long as they are 2-meters apart, they can momentarily lower their face masks to rest.
“We are used to it. We have been wearing face masks since last year and it’s okay for me. Also, last week I had to get tested for COVID-19, luckily the result was negative, but we got a bit scared and the feeling was quite disgusting. I hope we train without face masks soon, many teammates don’t like them and neither do I. But in the end, rugby is my passion and nothing is going to stop me from playing it.
“At the beginning, it was only me, but with time, training sessions, matches and the stubbornness of my coach Maguila we were able to widen the group. In 2017, Carmen, Kike, Emma and Miguel joined. The next year we were welcomed by Ángel, Alex and Alexito. It was incredible!
“The year 2019, was a very special moment for me, we participated in our first tournament. We travelled to the Basque Country – a county in the north of Spain – where we won the ‘inklusibotxapela’. This experience was incredible; competing with so many people I had a great time” says experienced rugby player with down syndrome and IncluIndus captain, Andy Murray, 25, from Las Rozas de Madrid.
At IncluIndus everyone is welcomed to join in. Currently, it’s formed by over twenty registered players from all age groups, abilities and experience. The team’s objective is to help out people with physical and mental disabilities by staying healthy, learning unique skills, meeting new people and being part of a group.
Parents, siblings, friends and carers are allowed to come to training to help out during the sessions. Not only they’ll offer a hand to the coaches, but they are able to train as if they were players, breaking the invisible wall between conventional and mixed ability rugby. Allowing them to join in, creates a safe space for the players, where they can always rely on someone they know.
“One day Maguila and Andy came to my centre promoting their club. At the beginning I was a bit worried it’d be too much work, but the way they talked about it made me realise the great opportunity it was. Unable to go there by myself, as I don’t own a car, my mum offered herself to join me.
“So far we’ve been training every week but with a big rest in between due to coronavirus. It’s been quite hard training at home, but thankfully we’ve got a big backyard where we could go out during the quarantine. Now, every Tuesday and Thursday we meet at the rugby field entrance at 19:15. I love coming to rugby as it makes me meet with my friends and coaches.
“Other teammates also come with their family, Andy’s sister used to join us sometimes and many mothers come to training as well. I think it’s good that they come as they’re really fun to play with” says Ángel Gyula Torres, 22, IncluIndus player.
The training sessions include every exercise a conventional rugby player would do: passing the ball, athletics, strength, tackling… But they try to celebrate the victories, rather than look at the mistakes. The sessions focus on improving at rugby while having fun and learning how to control emotions like anger and frustration.
For the IncluIndus players, rugby is more than a sport. Not only do they learn about the sport, but the coaches try to form the players in every aspect of their lives, from fitness and rugby to social abilities and fundamental values. The team emphasizes on six key principles, stated on their website:
- Solidarity: we help each other.
- Effort: to stay fit and healthy.
- Equality: amongst everyone who joins in.
- Teamwork: creating a family-like environment.
- Compromise: of belonging to a team.
- Fair play: so everyone can have a good time.
The values at IncluIndus are what makes the players believe they are part of a family. Every Thursday, of every week, of every month for the past four years they’ve come together to share their passion: rugby. It’s their love for the sport that has made many people interested in their project, appearing several times on YouTube, TV and newspapers.
From dozens of articles written about their project to getting interviewed by Spain’s XV rugby captain, Jaime Nava, and recently appearing in a radio programme for RTVE – Spanish Radio & Televisión organization – in which they were interviewed about IncluIndus and the mixed ability rugby world cup.
“My dream is to play at the IMART (International Mixed Ability Rugby Tournament). It all started in 2014 when the club received me with open arms. I hope to play there someday, it’d be a dream come true.
“Even if we win or we lose, it doesn’t matter. Our coach Maguila always tells us to enjoy the game, every match and every brawl. The result is useless, we play rugby to have fun and make friends, we are not here to compete” tells Andy Murray when asked about the international tournament.
The IMART is the ‘World Cup’ of Mixed Ability Rugby. Celebrated every four years, the tournament involves over one thousand players from twenty-eight teams across fourteen nations worldwide. In 2015, the first tournament was hosted by the Bingley Bumble Bees Barbarians near Leeds and in 2017 it was hosted in the Basque Country, Spain.
IncluIndus is hoping to participate in the following one, but the appearance of COVID-19 at the beginning of 2020 made the IRFU – Ireland Rugby Football Union, sponsor of the IMART – cancel the international tournament for safety issues.
Since then, IncluIndus have tried to adapt to the Spanish safety restrictions accordingly. The rugby field at Las Rozas is shared with the american football team Black Demons and with their hosts Ingenieros Industriales. The pitch is divided in sectors to maintain the safety distance between the different sports, age groups and teams.
Furthermore, there is a timetable set up for the field as well as the gym, the rapid growth of Spanish rugby has made the club turn from a niche team into the honour batch of Las Rozas having over eight hundred registered players before the pandemic. The correct use of face masks is compulsory, as well as bringing individual water bottles and hand sanitiser, but the few drawbacks COVID-19 has brought hasn’t stopped IncluIndus from doing what they love.
“I enjoy playing matches and getting on the ground. The feeling of tackling, getting tackled, pushing in the scrums and lifting on the lineouts is amazing. Hopefully, this will end sooner than later, as training with a face mask in summer is just unbearable. My face is sweating all the time.
“But well, in the end, we all help each other and sometimes they even put the sprinklers on to get us a bit colder. I really appreciate it. I know I can always count on my friends if I get tired, like today when our friend twisted his ankle. Maguila told us to play the game of ‘la sillita de la reina’ (the queen’s chair) to carry him outside the field. It was quite tiring, but I know that if I help people, they’ll help me in the future.
“IncluIndus has become my family. I used to think that I came here alone, but now I know that I can’t be alone if I’m with my friends” says one of the senior players at IncluIndus, Carmen Valky.
The club has been able to give full independence to IncluIndus since its creation. The core of the team is to give people with special needs an opportunity to play rugby. The first club to implement these core values were the Bingley Bumble Bees, after its former captain Anthony Brooke, 40, said he wanted to play “real rugby”.
“I don’t want to play disabled rugby, I want to play proper rugby.”
Since then, the Bumbles have established their home at the Bradford and Bingley Rugby Club, have participated in two IMART’s – hosting the first one in the world – and are looking to return to the game as soon as possible.
When asked about mixed ability rugby, IncluIndus coach Juan Ignacio ‘Maguila’ Pita showed admiration for the Bumble’s journey.
“The Bumble Bees have been a big influence for our team, when Andy came to me about playing rugby I did some research and soon came up with the English team. If I’m not mistaken they hosted the first IMART in history, what an achievement.
“Hopefully we’ll meet in the future and because we are both under the IRFU ruling, I’m sure it’ll happen. Mixed ability rugby has shown time and time again to be different from other sports, we play with the team, share our lives and even hang out sometimes”.
The team hopes to compete before summer, but the ongoing health crisis is making it hard for the community to come together. Future matches between the senior players at Ingenieros Industriales and IncluIndus are being set up so they don’t lose practice in the contact sport.
Together they’ve created a team of inclusiveness, cohesion and friendship. On many occasions, they’ve been told to play a sport but the team agrees rugby is not their sport, but their passion. IncluIndus hopes to return to the competition for September but with the help of the vaccine and the loosening up of the restrictions their wishes might come true this summer.
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