With the Six Nations looming and everyone becoming completely obsessed with winning it is genuinely refreshing to come across one body of players who couldn’t give a stuff about the final score and instead concentrate on the social aspect of rugby and bringing diverse peoples together.
Jamie Armstrong has a background in dance, he and his partner set up the “Indepen-Dance” movement, which helped young disenfranchised people overcome various issues.
He played a bit of rugby in his younger days but was forced to retire at the age of 21. With his twin backgrounds in rugby and helping those less able he put the two together back in 2012 and started a charity, Trust Rugby International.
Its stated aim is to play “Unified Rugby”, uniting those struggling with learning difficulties or drink/drug rehabilitation programmes with, for the want of a better word, regular rugby players.
The charity gained initial backing from Ayrshire and Arran NHS and their spiritual home is Kilmarnock Rugby Club where their first opponents were the club’s social side, the Killie Polar Bears.
The idea has steadily expanded with further “Clans” as they are known, based at Edinburgh Academicals’ Raeburn Place and Allan Glen’s in Glasgow. Fraserburgh in the north want to host a Clan and Armstrong has a meeting this month with Hawick in the Borders so the Clan catchment covers the length and breadth of Scotland.
“We tend not to play too much before Christmas,” says Armstrong, “but we try to get perhaps 15-20 games between now and May.
“We usually have six or seven players with learning difficulties in any one unified team. South of the border they use the term ‘mixed ability’.
“If you have learning difficulties and have just joined the Clan and are perhaps a little vulnerable then you wear a red scrum cap to signal to the opposition that you can’t be tackled. Instead the ‘red caps’ have to be scragged by the shirt or shorts or simply stopped with a two-handed touch on the hips.
“Those with learning difficulties who have been with us for a while and are a little more robust wear a yellow scrum cap to signal that they can be tackled although not perhaps a full-on hit.”
If it sounds like they are making it up on the hoof, they are, and some teams from other countries wear no signifiers at all because the sport is so young the rules are still being hammered out.
The Clans have no difficulty attracting what Armstrong refers to as “enablers”, those mainstream players required to make up the numbers. Instead he says that unified rugby invariably attracts the right sort of character.
“We get a lot of younger players coming back to the game that they left because they felt it was too demanding when they just wanted to enjoy the social side of things,” says the founder. “We also get older players who might struggle with a faster and more physical form of the sport.
“The Clans do play against each other. We set up the 2015 Quaich as our version of the 1872 Cup, but almost all the teams we play are mainstream sides.
“Ninety-nine per cent of people can play unified rugby and it opens eyes, it wins over hearts and minds and it breaks down barriers,” says Armstrong. “We educate people, but ultimately this is just rugby.”
Armstrong’s little band of pioneers is growing slowly. He has hired one apprentice with Down’s Syndrome and one support coach who is autistic. Both of them get invaluable hands-on coaching experience under Iain Berthinussen, director of rugby at BATS, at Raeburn Place; just one example of how Trust Rugby’s partnerships work.
“Obviously you need players with some empathy but the game flows remarkably well, it’s pretty full on,” says Bertinussen who has witnessed unified rugby in action. “But it is bigger than rugby.”
Trust Rugby has had the support of numerous weel-kent faces. Mark Bennett hails from Ayrshire and the Scotland centre is a figurehead of sorts, while Chris Paterson and Al Kellock have lent their support.
Armstrong tells a good story about Grant Gilchrist when the Scotland lock appeared in the Six Nations a couple of years back sporting his habitual red scrum cap.
One of the young lads in a Clan watched the match and phoned Armstrong with great excitement, convinced that one of his fellow “red caps” had been promoted all the way to Scotland colours! Gilchrist duly turned up at a Clan training session with his red headgear.
Trust Rugby International has already taken unified teams to two tournaments abroad, including Spain last year when they finished third, not that anyone was counting. So just who, I ask Armstrong, benefits the most from Scotland’s modern incarnation of the Clans?
“Those with learning difficulties is the obvious answer,” he replies, “but it goes much wider than that. Society as a whole benefits because we are breaking down barriers.
“We are unifying communities one team at a time.”