Grazie ragazzi! Witney Wolves take SEN Rugby to Italy...

Last month the mighty Witney Wolves flew to the Veneto region on a four day trip to visit Mirano RFC - a club blazing a trail towards the adoption of SEN Tag Rugby in Northern Italy. While here in the UK many of us have embraced SEN teams at our clubs, in Italy there is currently no provision for those with Special Educational Needs wishing to engage in the sport. The Wolves were asked to send a delegation to visit Mirano and show what can be achieved when clubs adopt SEN players into their membership. Stefano Cibin, Mirano Club President, Jeremy Bristoe (Ex-Wolves Head Coach) and myself welcomed the team at the airport before being taken to the clubhouse for a reception dinner, and then on to a presentation evening. Attending this were over 300 people from across the Italian rugby world, including heads from the Italian Federation, as well as representatives from various special needs associations in Northern Italy - including the Downs Association and the Autism Society. We heard from political figures, parents of local children and players at Mirano, representatives from the club, and prominent sports psychiatrists. Jeremy Bristoe told the story of how the Wolves began, with our Captain, James Paul, wanting to play rugby but finding no provision in our area for a child with Downs Syndrome to do so. He explained how Witney had opened its doors to the Wolves 10 years ago and from that one player we now have a large and vibrant squad who train every week, mix in with our mainstream teams at Witney and go on tour every year. Many of the Wolves parents told the stories of their individual children and why the Wolves has been so important for them, and one of our players, Charlie Radford spoke about the skills playing for the Wolves had given him and how he now has a full time job as a result of gaining those skills. I talked about how awesome SEN rugby can be, and about why rugby lends itself so well to SEN play.

On Friday morning the Wolves families were all taken to Venice for a guided tour of the city - by private water taxi! They were taken for lunch and had a truly amazing time. Perhaps most amazing was that the families paid NOTHING for this - the hundreds of euros spent on the water taxis and the meal were covered by the Autism Society of Venice. A extremely generous and much appreciated gesture.

At the same time Gareth Lewis and the Witney coaches were running an SEN training session for around 40 coaches and rugby officials back at the club in Mirano - this was a HUGE success. We explained the various challenges players which special needs may face on the pitch, and how to think about changing the way you interact with players and the methods you use to coach in order to put them at ease, teach them the game skills they need and get the best out of them. We introduced them to tag belts (which they currently don't use in the sport in Italy) and some simple fun games which went down a treat - the lead representative for the Italian Federation was all over Sumo Tag and everyone roared with laughter during Rats and Rabbits (which we changed to Witney and Mirano for the occasion!) We played until it was almost pitch black and the coaches were sold - all said they were returning in the morning for the full session with the Wolves.

On Saturday we donned our Witney kits and headed out onto Mirano's training ground. After some warms ups the mighty Wolves were joined by Mirano coaches Matteo and Alessandro and their U12 squad. Together we played Pirati e Capitani (pirates and sailors!) Rats and Rabbits, Eggs in the Nest with the giant yoga ball bomb, and some Hula Skirt Tag. Connor Harding, one of my senior Wolves, decided he wanted to run a game of Coach's Lair - and then we got into some matches - mixing the two squads up and making four teams for two matches. To see the Wolves and the Italian U12's play Tag Rugby together was a truly awesome sight. To see my players try out their Italian greetings with Mirano's U12's - to see the Italian's High 5 the Wolves when they put down a Try - to see the hand shaking, team work, laughter, cheering - was truly spectacular. Many of the Italian coaches saw how much fun we were having and asked if they too could tag up and get involved! We ended with team tunnels, a huddle, the Wolves performed their (now internationally renowned!) Shampoo Haka and the Italians reciprocated by demonstrating their team ‘Branca'. We handed out a huge bag of Cadbury's chocolate to the Mirano players in gratitude, and accepted a signed ball from the U12's, and when the Wolves parents and players left the changing rooms the Italian parents of the U12's gave them a huge round of applause. Enough to break your heart.

What is amazing is that despite the language barrier - none of the Italian coaches spoke English - it just didn't seem to matter. The international language of rugby - the rugby family - stretches well beyond national borders and that makes our sport and those who play it so special. We have made life long friends in Mirano, our brothers and sisters in rugby.

Mirano had T-shirt's printed with the Witney Wolf and the Mirano Dragon - the SEN team they now hope to set up, designed for them by the same Disney illustrator Giorgio Cavazzano who designed the Wolf logo for us at Witney. The Wolves were also presented with a beautiful plaque made to commemorate the union between the Witney Wolves and the Mirano Dragons, which we look forward to displaying proudly in the clubhouse.

The Italian Federation representative's were very clear, that their plan now is to help Mirano set up the Dragons, and from there they want to see an SEN team established in every club, first in the Veneto, and then across the whole of Northern Italy. I think we can safely say we have sold them on the benefits of Tag rugby for SEN players and we can consider the idea well and truly exported! This will now hopefully give us a springboard to continue to further he cause of SEN rugby here in the UK, where we hope to get England Rugby to extend the Age Grade Rugby program to officially include SEN Tag rugby, with established guidelines for play which clubs can refer to and which will hopefully encourage more clubs to set up teams like the Wolves. We know the Mirano players enjoyed themselves because apparently at their training session the following evening the team insisted on a few rounds of Sumo Tag Challenge and ‘Giochi di Lotta' (our Hula Skirt Tag!) At the Wolves we begin and end every training session with the call ‘We were born ready!!!!!' and now as it turns out, so we're our Italian friends.

Witney represented itself with both play and attitude which did the club proud. Each and every Wolf was as ever spirited, enthusiastic, gracious and generally awesome (not that I am at all biased!) Gareth Lewis demonstrated what a wealth of professional coaching experience we possess at the club and Kirk Collins made some good contacts with the older age groups on behalf of our Academy team, and we hope the two clubs will now exploit the new touring opportunities our friendship provides. Jack Harding (Witney Academy) was also a credit to the club, kitted up and ready for action assisting our own James Clarke on the pitch, and showing just what heart and compassion Witney players throughout the club possess. Overall I can confidently report that without doubt we did both Witney RFC and English Rugby proud. I certainly am bursting with pride. We thank all at Witney for supporting us in this amazing venture.

Witney RFC - you rock! Mirano RFC - Grazie ragazzi!