Cork will host the International Mixed Ability Rugby Tournament (IMART) 2022 this June, in what organisers hope will be a celebration of the social side of the game.

Twenty-four men’s teams and four women’s sides are scheduled to take to the field at Musgrave Park between 5-10 June, featuring players from as far afield as Argentina, Canada, Chile and Ecuador.

It is the third time the event has been held, following the inaugural IMART in Bradford in 2015, and forms part of Mixed Ability Week 2022, which is supported by the European Commission.

When the action kicks off it will end a long two-year wait for its organisers and players, after the tournament was postponed in 2020 due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It was actually St Patrick’s Day, and the handbrake was pulled,” IMART co-founder Alan Craughwell told World Rugby.

“We had our launch in Cork City Hall and we were going for it. But you know what? It wasn't bad, it allowed us to take stock of what we were doing, and it allowed us to look at the whole tournament, globally.

“Teams started coming out of nowhere and expressing an interest. Various delegations and various rugby unions around the world started saying, ‘Oh, this might be an option for activation, getting people back post-COVID’.”

International Mixed Ability Sports (IMAS) Director, and IMART co-founder, Martino Corazza added: “The commitment of the teams over the last couple of years has just blown us away because there was no single team that said, I'm not in a position to come anymore because of the pandemic.

“On the contrary, we had, as Alan said, people knocking on the door.”

A festival of rugby

Mixed ability rugby is contested by 15-a-side teams made up of both able-bodied and disabled players. Matches are played to World Rugby laws, with only minor tweaks, such as uncontested scrums.

Craughwell, who works with people with intellectual disabilities, discovered the sport in 2013 while flicking through a magazine in a physio waiting room and got in touch with Corazza, who invited him to Bradford to see it in person.

He returned to Ireland enthused and helped convince historic Cork club, Sunday’s Well to start up a mixed ability team.

From 13 players at the first training session nine years ago, the club now boasts a squad of 50 players. Sunday’s Well won the inaugural IMART in 2015 and will be keen to reclaim the trophy on home soil in June.

“It’s great for the club, it’s great for Munster, it’s great for the rugby community in Cork and Ireland,” Craughwell said.

“We have the backing of the club, our branch, our union on this. It's really going to be a festival of rugby for that week, and it's at the end of the season so we'll get people coming out who just want to enjoy a little bit more rugby than they've been allowed to, I suppose, over the past two seasons.

“So, it's going to be good. I’m just delighted for the club, it's great. I'm personally very pleased to be able to repay the club for their commitment in getting involved with mixed ability rugby.

“They didn't know exactly what they were getting themselves into, and they took a leap of faith. And the one comment always from the club was, ‘This is the right thing to do’.”

As Craughwell mentions, the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) have lent their support to the event as host union.

“The IRFU is delighted to be involved in IMART 2022, offering technical and logistical assistance where needed,” the IRFU’s Spirit of Rugby Manager, Anne Marie Hughes said.

“We all know that rugby is a game for all shapes, sizes and abilities and mixed ability rugby is no different, offering another avenue into the sport for players, their family and friends, along with the physical and mental health benefits it brings through a sense of inclusion, team spirit and involvement with their community through the local club.”

Women help grow global movement

For the first time since the tournament’s inception, IMART 2022 will feature a women’s competition as four female teams compete at Musgrave Park.

The previous tournament, in Vitoria-Gasteiz in 2017, featured an exhibition game that enabled female players to participate and since then the appetite for women’s mixed ability rugby has increased.

“Our aim has always been to say, we need to have mixed ability women's teams,” Corazza said. “The first one was in Ballincollig in Ireland, and they were created pretty much for the tournament in 2020.

“The global movement in rugby is expanding enormously, especially in women's rugby. So, the fact that mixed ability is actually following the trend is just incredible because it means that there is a big enough pool of women to want to play rugby at the grassroots level.

“Mixed ability [rugby] is allowing sisters, mums, friends, people who never played rugby to have a very soft entry point, still with the same game, but growing the global movement.”

Mixed ability rugby developed out of a desire to make 15-a-side, contact rugby, and the club environment, accessible to those with a mental or physical disability.

Craughwell states that among the many positive impacts mixed ability rugby is having for all involved, another welcome consequence is that it provides an avenue into senior rugby for those able-bodied players who would otherwise have walked away.

“The magic to me is how it attracts people, ex-players back into the club or players who fell away at 18, 19, 20,” he said.

“If you're not making senior rugby and maybe you don't want to play firsts rugby, it gives people that option.

“One of the guys who came back playing with us is now playing in the firsts, and he would have fallen away from rugby. So that, to me, is the major by-product of all of this, it's retention within the club and it's at a very local level.

“How do you actually do inclusion at clubs? Set up a team and see what happens. You know, it dispels that myth around disability and what you call the person.

“We're all called names, so start off with the name and go from there.”

To learn more about IMART 2022, click here

For more on #RugbyForAll, click here