Hopes are high that a that pilot project for visually impaired rugby can be built on in the 2022.
Visually Impaired Rugby, also known as VI Rugby, is based around the Rugby 7s touch format. This allows the game to be safe and accessible for players with visual impairments. The gameplay takes into consideration a wide range of sight conditions whilst maintaining the fundamental codes, laws, and spectacle of rugby to both the players and spectators.
The game is for all visionally impaired players male and female B1 to B5 while for competitions players must be B2 – B4.
The IRFU recently collaborated with Vision Sports Ireland, Change Foundation and Old Wesley Rugby Club to deliver a series of pilot sessions for players at Energia Park. You see more about it in the video below.
Sean McDowell was one of the players to get involved in the sessions.
“I recently lost my vision and was looking for something to get into,” he told Irish Rugby TV.
“It’s getting to see other people with impairments and it probably motivates you more to push yourself on when you see what other people can do. It’s just good people to be around and good fun.”
“It probably actually helps with everyday life – just avoiding obstacles and stuff and it gets you more alert for that when you’re playing in the wee mini games and having to avoid people. Looking around gets your scanning going and I think it really does help.”
Sean’s wife Aine McDowell has been making the trips from Co. Down for the sessions in Energia Park.
“Supporting Sean, it was probably the first thing that [he’d]shown interest in,” she said.
“Sean lost his vision about a year and a half ago from a brain injury. This has been the first thing that you’ve really wanted, really felt passionate about in a long time. It was a big step for Sean to come here.
“And I was a bit worried in case whenever we came, it would maybe put Sean off if it didn’t go so well the first session or if he couldn’t do something I was a bit worried about how it might set him back. But no, it’s been brilliant. Coach David has been fantastic and all the team. Everyone has been very encouraging and it’s been very good.”
David McKay is the IRFU’s Disability & Inclusion Officer.
“Basically VI rugby is for anybody with a visual impairment from B1 to B5,” he said.
“We use a ball with ball bearings in it, so if you’ve got a visual impairment you can hear the ball coming towards you. And there’s a lot more communication within the game. Players wear numbers on their bibs so then they can be identified when they’re running with the ball.
“You’ve also got guides who help with the running. It’s really inclusive and it’s really about getting people who have a visual impairment to experience rugby. So a few of the players we’ve got today, this is their first time playing rugby and it’s great to invite them into the rugby family and experience what it’s like to play as part of a club and as part of a team.”
Former Leinster and Italy out-half Ian McKinley was a driving force in introducing VI Rugby to Irish Rugby and the sessions could not have gone ahead without the backing and expertise of Vision Sports Ireland.
“The most important thing is that people are enjoying it,” said McKinley.
“You have to give them a reason to travel from Co. Down, to travel from Westmeath to come here and take part. It’s just giving something to people and being able for them to grab onto it and experience rugby. Because maybe they’ve never had that experience or they did and it’s been cruelly taken away from them. It’s really important for them to embrace it and enjoy it.”
“I hope it definitely continues and I would like a team to get up and running to play against other teams and get more competitive – just push on and hopefully more people get involved.”
“Hopefully we’ll see this project grow. We’ve big aspirations for it, but it’s only the start and we really hope to grow it because it’s growing in England – many different premiership clubs doing it. In Scotland as well. Italy – we had something pre-lockdown. So hopefully it can really kick off.”
The McDowells are in full agreement. “We just don’t want it to stop here,” says Aine.