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Seapoint Dragons took to the hallowed turf of the Aviva Stadium on the night of Friday 15 April as part of their 10-year anniversary celebrations.
One of Ireland’s oldest additional needs rugby teams were guests of honour for the second leg of the Heineken Champions Cup encounter between Leinster and Connacht and showed off their skills during the half-time interval.
It marked another special moment in the journey of the team, who along with Greystones RFC and De La Salle Palmerston FC were among the forerunners in Ireland in this form of non-contact, tag rugby for people with autism, Down’s syndrome and other non-specified conditions.
“People within the club or with connections to the club wanted their sons and daughters with intellectual disabilities to play rugby like everybody else and that’s how it started off,” explained Peter O’Brien, one of the founders and a current senior team coach.
With Seapoint Rugby Club already having strong links to the community, the chance to embrace even more people made perfect sense.
Enquiries were made with local special schools where interest in tag rugby was expressed and with the full support of the club, the Seapoint Dragons were initiated.
“We got great support from the IRFU and Leinster Rugby as well. They helped draw up draft laws for this particular form of the game. They wanted to see this all-inclusive form of rugby take off,” said O’Brien.
Former Ireland international Joanne Dwyer had previous experience volunteering in additional needs roles and became the team’s head coach in 2011 and has remained on board ever since.
“Dragons has brought a lot more to the club than anyone ever anticipated. From the outset it was about inclusion and players being able to come with their families and enjoy sport the same as their brothers or sisters,” Dwyer said.
“It is about community, it is about friendships, lots of fun and an awful lot of laughter. We have friendships now that span the length and breadth of the country.”
The support of Felix Jones, the Munster and Ireland sevens player, has also remained a constant throughout the team’s evolution.
Jones, who has carved out a successful coaching career with the Springboks, started his career at Seapoint and was back at the club a few weeks ago and brought his Rugby World Cup 2019-winning medal with him.
Anne Marie Hughes, the IRFU's Spirit of Rugby Manager, said: "We all know that rugby is a game for all shapes, sizes and abilities and additional needs 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”.
Meanwhile, Peter O’Brien’s namesake, former Ireland and British and Irish Lions international Seán O’Brien, has long had an interest in the fortunes of the team.
“The players, the coaches and the team behind-the-scenes at the Seapoint Dragons are all a credit to the sport of rugby,” the flanker said.
“They all embody the most important characteristic of our game – inclusiveness.
“It’s fantastic to hear that they have reached their 10-year anniversary and I’m sure the next 10 years will be just as productive.
“Congratulations to everyone involved; hopefully, I will get the chance to see you soon!”
Peter O’Brien and Dwyer and the other volunteer coaches, who include local transition-year school students, take immense satisfaction from the joy that rugby brings to the club’s members with additional needs.
“Parents come along and they don’t think their children will be able to play the game and within six months we have them passing and running and tagging, that’s the joy that the coaches get out of it,” said O’Brien.
“We’ve had so many parents over the years that don’t realise that with a little bit of training and a little bit of understanding a lot can be achieved and they can participate.”
Seeing the value that additional needs rugby has brought to Seapoint soon persuaded other clubs throughout Leinster to introduce their own sections.
From three clubs at the beginning, there are now around 20 actively involved in the province in this form of the game.
Having such decent numbers has enabled regular rugby festivals, or ‘blitzes’ as they are known, to take place between the clubs.
And the growth of additional needs rugby has also led to the first full-time appointment at the IRFU, with David McKay the person tasked with heading up the development of this type of rugby.
In the next 10 years, with the support of the IRFU and Leinster Rugby, O’Brien would like to see the game open up to even more people.
“We are constantly looking for new members, particularly juniors and more female players.
“We currently have five girls playing with the Dragons and we’d like to encourage more.”
To view the Seapoint Dragons ten year anniversary video, click here.