Deaf rugby is played across the world, with Wales, England and New Zealand sitting at the top of the international standings.
While the game’s fanbase is growing, there are still many myths about the sport. Players are regularly asked questions such as ‘does the game have to be completely silent?’ or ‘how do you know when the referee has blown the whistle?’
Here some of England Deaf Rugby’s most prominent players and its Chairwoman answer these questions and more with 10 things they want you to understand about their sport:
The laws of the game are exactly the same
Luke Cheyne, England Deaf Rugby captain, says the biggest myth about deaf rugby is that the laws of the game are different from rugby union. In fact, it is exactly the same game, the only difference being that the players all have some form of hearing loss. The tackles are just as hard, the pace is just as fast, and the game is just as beautiful.
Except, sometimes we don’t stop at the whistle
The only law that is often broken is that, sometimes, players play on past the whistle. “There are many occasions where the ref will blow a whistle and no one hears, and the game carries on until it is eventually noticed”, England Deaf Rugby Chairwoman Gina Iaquaniello explains.
Some referees use a brightly coloured flag to wave instead of blowing their whistle. However, the arm signals used by referees are still applied in deaf rugby to demonstrate a call.
We have sign interpreters at training to make sure we can communicate
Most people involved in deaf rugby are volunteers, which includes Sign Language interpreters who help players communicate during training.
We can’t wear our hearing aids on the pitch
As you can imagine, taking a big hit with a hearing aid in could lead to injury, so hearing aids are not allowed on the pitch.
At the highest level of the game, it’s common for the referee to check under players’ scrum caps in case players try to wear hearing aids for a game.
We have to be able to read non-verbal communication in rugby
While all rugby players will pride themselves on this skill, deaf rugby players rely on it more. “We have to be watching the game more than non-deaf people to be able to pick up what is happening and make predictions”, says Lynn Bryant, England Deaf flanker. “You have to know your position and team-mates well.”
Deaf people can shout too
“There has been some real debate about deaf people talking to each other on the pitch”, Iaquaniello says. “Just because you are deaf it doesn’t mean you can’t talk - deaf people can shout too!”
Given various levels of hearing ability, deaf rugby players are likely to be moderately or profoundly deaf and some teams may have more substantially non-hearing players than others. In an effort to achieve fairness and inclusivity for competing deaf players/teams and provide a level playing field, minor variations to the laws of the game can be applied with agreement on the basis that many players cannot hear at all and are completely reliant on visual communication such as the use of flags, referee signals and deafness orientation to increase use of visual cues, no use of voice on-field, additional referees and availability of sign language interpreters to facilitate access to officials etc.
Not everyone is completely deaf
The worldwide measure for deaf rugby is a loss of at least 40 decibels, although some countries allow players with less hearing loss than this for non-competitive fixtures.
“We have varying levels of deafness with varying reasons and medical conditions” Iaquaniello explains. “Some haven’t always been deaf from birth; some have progressive hearing loss, and some have been deaf their whole life.”
We have special signals for the scrum and set pieces
Deaf rugby teams often create their own signs for each other, a certain move, or a particular play.
Cheyne explains that in the scrum, the front row often has their own way of signalling to each other when to engage with the opposing team. Sometimes this is a tap or squeeze from a team-mate, sensing the movement of the pack moving forward, or just reading the body language of the opposition.
On the rare occasion that players are unable to understand when to engage, the referee can make the scrums uncontested.
Deaf rugby is a celebration of deaf and rugby cultures
Corey Beck, tight-head prop for England Deaf, says that the comradery in rugby is special in deaf rugby. “Ultimately we are a community of rugby players bound by hearing loss. We exemplify that patience, understanding and true friendship can overcome some of the barriers of being hearing impaired.”
Cheyne agrees: “The community is like no other. Because we share hearing loss, we have a common appreciation of one another. It also allows our hearing loss to be something that is celebrated instead of being looked at as a negative. Other than that, the values and culture of deaf rugby are the same as any other type of rugby.”
We can, and do, play at the top level of rugby
While there are some challenges, hearing loss doesn’t stop players rising to the top of rugby and there are many rugby stars who have some form of hearing loss.
Ben Cohen, who won Rugby World Cup 2003 with England is clinically deaf with just 46 per cent hearing.
Mat Gilbert, who played for teams such as Bath, Worcester Warriors and Llanelli Scarlets, also played for England’s deaf rugby team.
Similarly, Sale Sharks Women’s player Jodie Ounsley is profoundly deaf and plays for both England Sevens and England Deaf.
Given the similarities between deaf and “mainstream” rugby, World Rugby national unions are ultimately responsible for the governance and administration of the game but work in collaboration with national deaf rugby stakeholders who are also supported by World Deaf Rugby, an organisation which aims to gather, inspire and encourage deaf communities across the world in over 20 countries to participate in rugby union, whether as a player, volunteer or fan.
Photo credit: Gary Bide/England Deaf Rugby Union