Gwilym Lewis is coach of Llanelli Warriors RFC. But this isn’t just any ordinary rugby club.
Tucked away in Burry Port you’ll discover a rugby club of mixed abilities that’s inspiring and serving as a blueprint for similar set ups across Europe. What’s different about this team is that it actively looks to involve players who have learning disabilities (or those who simply struggle to learn). Some players might have limited mobility too.
“I used to work in a day centre,” explains Gwilym, when asked how it all started. “They had a rugby team made up of staff and clients and they asked me to play. It wasn’t long before I was helping out with the coaching.
“As the team started to get more serious, we moved the club away from the social services setting and established it as a standalone club.
“There’s not often a night I’m not doing something for the club,” says Gwilym. That’s a pretty tall order considering his demanding occupation as a Drugs and Alcohol Care Worker for Carmarthenshire County Council. So why does he do it?
“I love the challenge of coaching, especially the mix of abilities, personalities and disabilities. It is tiring sometimes but it’s brilliant. I love seeing the boys socialising. Parents will say how the club has improved their child’s confidence. We took the team to see Scrum V being filmed the other day and a player said it had been the happiest day of his life. That makes all the hard work worth it.”
The Warriors currently have 25 players who have mental conditions and disabilities such as autism, ADHD, Down’s Syndrome and cerebral palsy.
“In Llanelli, everyone plays rugby and everyone talks about it. So it really helps with social integration. They have stories to tell other people of matches they’ve played, tackles they’ve made and trips they’ve been on. They can relate to others and hold their own in conversations.”
The club played 19 fixtures last season, the majority against ‘mainstream’ rugby sides and – although the philosophy is more about inclusion and experience than winning games – they notched up an impressive 11 victories.
Disabled players also assist in the running of the club, whether it’s coaching, officiating, a committee role or fundraising.
Having advised and helped set up integrated sides in England, Scotland and across Europe, Gwilym has been described as a pioneer – a term he quickly shrugs off, crediting any achievement to the club itself:
“I think the concept of the Warriors disabled and non-disabled players playing against and alongside each other is pioneering, especially in rugby as it’s a game of such physicality. It’s been a privilege to play a part in the journey of the Warriors and in setting up other mixed abilities team in other parts of the world.”