Rugby puts the ball into new and excited hands

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Modified Rugby Program mentors and participants at a training session at Viking Park, from left, Jonty Godfrey, Nathan Hackett, Nick Townsend and, front, Lillie Ferris. Photo: Belinda Strahorn

EACH weekend, scores of children flock to ovals to play sport, but spare a thought for those who find joining a team challenging.

However, in the ACT, a modified version of rugby union is going from strength to strength, with kids with learning and perceptual disabilities participating in a national pastime.

For 24-year-old Nick Townsend, playing modified rugby on Saturday morning is the highlight of his week.

Nick’s dad, Vince, never thought he would see his son, who has a rare genetic disorder, don a jersey, and play in a team.

“You can’t wipe the smile off his face,” Vince said.

“It’s been great for Nick, he’s very social, he doesn’t talk much but he communicates in his own way and he understands everything you say to him.”

Two years ago, Nick was diagnosed with Skraban-Deardorff syndrome, an intellectual disability affecting a small number of people worldwide.

A true rugby tragic, you’ll find Nick at every Queanbeyan Whites game cheering from the sideline.

Being able to get involved in a game he’d only ever been able to watch before has made a huge difference.

“It’s a great environment, Nick is very much accepted here, and it’s good for the parents to get together, too,” said Vince.

The Modified Rugby Program (MRP) was founded in 2014 by Brisbane-based GingerCloud Foundation.

The world-first concept is a form of touch rugby with shorter games, little tackling and a reduced field size.

GingerCloud managing director Megan Elliott, co-founded MRP with her husband Anthony, to give their son Max, who has autism, the opportunity to play sport. 

The couple understands how much it means for children and their families to be included and play rugby just like everyone else.

“My husband Anthony would drive past our local rugby club in Brisbane each weekend in winter and see the kids in our neighbourhood playing rugby and we weren’t a part of that,” said Megan.

Starting with one team, MPR has developed to include 14 clubs in four different cities, including Canberra, with hundreds of players and mentors.

“It’s been life changing for Max,” Megan said.

“This is a child who at one point, because of his disability, had never been able to participate in a team sport.

“Now his confidence and ability to communicate with others is amazing.”

Vikings Rugby is running the Canberra-based MRP, which pairs players with mentors who support the boys and girls on the field, giving them tips on where to throw and run.

Vikings’ player Nathan Hackett, 19, is one of the mentors.

“I have a brother who is disabled so it comes naturally to me to want to help out,” Nathan said.

“It warms your heart seeing the kids having a go, laughing and enjoying themselves.”

Jonty Godfrey, 18, has been playing rugby since he was eight years old. He said being a mentor feels good.

“It makes your day when you see the kids smile,” Jonty said.

“Knowing they are getting the same opportunities to play rugby as we do, makes you feel really good.”

The rules of rugby have been adjusted to suit the needs of kids with disabilities, who until now found playing rugby too hard.

“We show the kids how to pass and kick a footy and get a better understanding of the game,” Nathan said.

Ten-year-old Lillie Ferris has Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, a condition that affects her hearing, eyesight and ability to communicate.

Lillie’s nanna and full-time carer Karen Syphers sums up how special the program is for her granddaughter.

“Lillie absolutely loves it,” Karen said.

“It’s helping her fine motor skills and with muscle development, too.”

Friendships have been forged, Karen said, and everyone bonds over a shared passion for rugby.

“A lot of people think rugby is rough, but it’s not like that, the game has been modified for these kids to make it fun,” said Karen.

“We are like one big happy family here and it doesn’t matter if your kid has a meltdown, everyone is accepted, it’s a beautiful thing.”

Rugby Australia has endorsed the MRP as a new division of rugby in Australia.

To register or become a mentor, email 


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