We shine a spotlight on the incredible work being done around the world with seven inspiring stories

Celebrating rugby’s real heroes

Talk of rugby’s values can be trite, descriptions of acts on a rugby field as heroic or brave can be overused, yet the stories covered below highlight how special this sporting community is. Here we highlight lesser-known stories of those members of the rugby family who have gone above and beyond. Not all heroes wear capes…

Relief effort

On Tuesday 4 August 2020, a huge explosion of ammonium nitrate in the Port of Beirut killed more than 200 people, injured a further 6,500 and destroyed swathes of buildings. The disaster only added to Lebanon’s problems, with the Covid-19 pandemic and economic collapse already putting the country in crisis.

“Lebanon has gone through hell the past year,” says Lebanon Rugby CEO Sol Mokdad, who was sitting on his seventh-floor balcony just a few kilometres from the port when the explosion happened.

“The ground started shaking, then there was a loud sonic boom, the doors came off their frames and glass shattered. Looking down on the street no one knew what was going on.”

The aftermath: Damage caused by the explosion in Beirut (Getty Images)

As news of the explosion filtered through, WhatsApp groups flooded with messages checking on everyone’s wellbeing. Fortunately no one involved in the country’s rugby community was seriously injured and they were determined to help, with many heading straight to the danger zone.

“Players went down of their own choice, people ran towards the explosion instead of away from it,” says Mokdad. “Our medical manager (Wadih Nassif) is heavily involved with the Lebanese Red Cross, so he was helping with immediate relief. Around 50-60 players – kids, women, men – turned up to help with clearing up, made sandwiches to help feed people… It was pretty organic how players went and volunteered.”

Mokdad pays tribute to the work of Manuel Stanislas, who is in charge of junior rugby in Lebanon, for “instilling the values of rugby and the culture” in the country’s youth players, many of whom were among those to volunteer.

In addition to the practical efforts on the ground, Lebanon Rugby launched a Disaster Fund and appealed to the wider rugby community to donate. Mokdad describes it as “pretty overwhelming” that nearly £15,000 has been raised, to be split equally between the Lebanese Red Cross and Beit El Baraka, a local charity.

The governing body, which is planning to apply for full membership of World Rugby next year, had already been helping to provide food for poor families before the explosion and wants to continue with such social initiatives through the Friends of Lebanon Rugby.

“The idea is to give 50% raised to the Red Cross and Beit El Baraka, and the other to the Lebanon Rugby Social Impact Fund to finance initiatives for players to do things and develop Lebanon Rugby, to spread the values of rugby to impoverished communities.”

Concussion campaign

This month marks the tenth anniversary of the death of Ben Robinson, the 14-year-old player from Northern Ireland who suffered a traumatic brain injury during a game and later died in hospital.

Most rugby fans will know Ben’s story and the critical, life-saving lesson at its heart: If in doubt, sit them out.

Ben’s dad, Peter, has campaigned for safety on the rugby field since that horrible day. Through his work in highlighting the importance of education around the area of brain injury, Peter Robinson may have helped stop another kid and another family from suffering the way his boy and his people have done. He’s a former rugby player, a rugby fan and a rugby protector.

Sign of the times: Important messaging around head injuries is visible at BT Murrayfield (Getty Images)

“I know the benefits of rugby and the comradeship you get from it, and to rule that out would be wrong because of what happened to Ben,” he says.

“Ben’s death was preventable. Rugby wanted to educate him about nutrition and strength and conditioning but nobody ever spoke about concussion. All it would have taken that day was for people to spot the signs and know what to do. Nobody did. The game was stopped four times for Ben.”

Compared to 2011, rugby is far more aware of the dangers of brain injury – and that’s what it is. “It’s a brain injury. The word ‘concussion’ rolls off the tongue but when we brought Ben into hospital they called it a traumatic brain injury, not a concussion. It’s not a Head Injury Assessment (HIA), it’s a Brain Injury Assessment.

“The terminology is important. We’re making progress. Now you have players retiring and talking about their own experiences, and it helps educate people. We’ll keep going, trying to highlight the message. Sometimes I tell coaches if you think it’s a hard decision to take a kid off a pitch with a suspected brain injury, it’s not. Switching off a life support machine, that’s a hard decision.”

The awful sadness is that it took Ben’s death for the game to start waking up. Rugby owes Peter Robinson all its gratitude, support and respect for everything that he’s doing in Ben’s name.

Girl power

In just five years, David McGuigan has grown the girls’ section at Old Reigatian RFC from nothing to nearly 100 players. And the club’s female arm already have silverware in their trophy cabinet as the U13s won the Surrey Waterfall Cup in April 2019.

Yet McGuigan isn’t solely focused on the girls’ set-up, he will throw himself into all club activities. “He’s one of those guys that every rugby club has, who’ll do anything for anyone and is the first to put his name down to help,” says Matt Garbett, one of the girls’ coaches. “He’ll send us coaches emails at 1am – I don’t know when he sleeps! He’s an inspiration to us all and a true rugby man.”

McGuigan was coaching boys at the club when he decided to launch a girls’ section because there was nowhere for his daughter, Caitlin, to play. He started off with only five players and there are now 94 from U11s to U18s, with the club’s recruitment impressive.

Winning feeling: Old Reigatian celebrate their 2019 cup success (Jo Garbett)

The club are fortunate to have three schools in the area – Reigate, St Bede’s and Reigate Grammar – and players often bring a few friends along. They also set up a stall at Parkruns and other local events to try to attract new players.

Garbett, who switched from coaching his son in the boys’ section to the girls after his daughter, Lily, started playing, says: “David had a vision to grow the girls’ section and it has taken off. David is the driving force.”

Even Covid hasn’t dampened spirits. As soon as they got the green light to return to training in groups of six, players were back doing skills work. The girls have embraced Ready 4 Rugby, the RFU’s new non-contact game, and even during the recent lockdown McGuigan put in place ways to keep them engaged.

Another goal is to launch a women’s team in the next three years. Given their success at age-grade level, it wouldn’t be a surprise if that was achieved sooner rather than later.

All inclusive

“My life changed forever while on patrol in Afghanistan.” Darren Carew was left with serious physical and mental injuries when the vehicle he was in was blown apart by an IED (improvised explosive device) 12 years ago, but now he is focused on getting more people involved in sport as the WRU’s disability rugby coordinator.

Carew opted to have his left leg amputated below the knee four years after the incident due to the chronic pain, while he lives with a brain injury that can affect his speech and memory. It’s the mental toll that he has found toughest, though, and that is where his day job helps.

“Coping mentally with the consequences of your injuries and the long-term effects of the hidden injuries are almost a bigger trauma than the physical injuries,” he says.

“Being involved in sport helps. It’s a way of helping other people and processing what happened to me. I’m lucky to have found myself in a role where I can make a difference again. Rugby has helped me to find confidence within myself again.”

The aim of the WRU Disability Rugby Strategy is to make the oval-ball game more inclusive, so everyone in Wales can get involved. ‘Jersey for All’ is the motto and, as well as delivering sessions himself, Carew has put together a programme that means more opportunities are available in wheelchair rugby, mixed ability rugby, deaf and visually impaired rugby. He’s even been to Kitakyushu in Japan to run sessions as part of the WRU’s engagement work pre-RWC 2019.

“You do something at home and are proud but to take it to a different country and see it work… We weren’t sure how the children would respond and it was an emotional experience but in a good way,” says Carew.

Closer to home, Carew is pleased to see such a diverse mix of people now getting involved in rugby. “We have kids as young as six and adults 60-plus, with a massive range of disabilities. It’s all about seeing the impact. And smiles on faces.”

Referee stalwart

When a series of concussions brought his playing days to a premature end at just 21, Kārlis Sarkans knew he wanted to stay involved in the game and decided to take up refereeing. Within a year he was refereeing in the Latvia Championship and now, a decade and a half later, he is the country’s top official.

We often talk about the importance of referees, how matches cannot happen without them, and that is underlined in developing nations, where numbers are limited.

As Raimonds Rudzats, chairman of the Sigulda club, puts it: “It’s almost impossible to have any fixture or tournament without Kārlis because we are short of referees and we don’t have any other at his level. That means most of his leisure time for the past 15 years has been dedicated to Latvian rugby. He is the unsung hero of Latvian rugby.”

Latvia’s 15-a-side men’s league has six teams while in sevens there are two divisions. Throw in women’s and youth matches, cross-border tournaments with Lithuania and Rugby Europe Tests, and that’s a lot of rugby that needs officiating.

Celebrating rugby’s real heroes

Taking charge: Kārlis Sarkans on refereeing duty (Zigismunds Zalmanis/Latvian Rugby Federation)

“When the season is going, I’d say I usually have two events per week,” says Sarkans, who works as a systems analyst for TietoEVRY. “I have three children – the oldest is eight and the youngest three and a half – so it is difficult trying to get a balance, but somehow my wife allows me to have the time to referee and prepare for refereeing.”

Sarkans points to Alain Rolland and Nigel Owens as officials he has looked up to – he has even incorporated the Welshman’s game management and communication style into his own game. An exchange scheme in 2006-07 also gave him the chance to referee in England, which proved a valuable learning experience early on.

Yet refereeing isn’t always rosy – abuse from the sidelines is a regular occurrence while political infighting is also casting shadows over the sport in Latvia. For now, though, 36-year-old Sarkans will continue to devote a huge amount of his time to rugby and the impact of that should not be underestimated.

“I’ll try to do it as long as I can,” says Sarkans. “Even if I stop the top games because of negativity, I will referee kids’ or women’s matches to stay in the game. At the moment I’m still enjoying it. If I stop, I’ll have to find another way to get positive emotions. I don’t want to leave the game as it’s in my heart.”

Show of resilience

Luke Igolen-Robinson was lining up the ball-carrier, ready to make the tackle, but rather than make contact with the opponent’s hip with his shoulder he did it with his head. Dad Carl, one of the coaches, was watching from the sidelines. He’d seen Luke get hurt before but the more time ticked on with him still on the ground, the more his eyes drifted from play to his prone son. When he saw the doctor put his hands around Luke’s head to stabilise his neck, Carl knew it was serious.

Luke had broken his neck, aged 15, while playing for his school, Haileybury. To complicate matters, they were in Argentina, the injury sustained in a game against Los Tordos RC in Mendoza, and neither father nor son spoke Spanish.

“It was really tough,” recalls Luke now, a little over two years later. “My arm was agony because of nerve damage but I couldn’t tell anyone that. The nurses were trying to do tests and I couldn’t tell them not to move my right arm.”

It soon became clear, however, that they would not be left in this situation alone. Players and parents and coaches from Los Tordos started arriving at the hospital and offering support, one of their number crucial in communicating with the insurance company’s Buenos Aires office to ensure the required surgery could go ahead. There was also a visit from an Argentina federation medic as well as a surprise appearance from a trio of Pumas internationals.

Surprise visitors: Pumas players drop in on Luke Igolen-Robinson in hospital (Carl Igolen-Robinson)

“I’d asked the medic if Luke wanted to play again could he,” says Carl, “and he said that if the surgery was successful, then there would be no greater risk than anyone else taking the field. It was an important moment as we didn’t know if he’d play again until then.”

While the Igolen-Robinsons were back home a couple of weeks after the injury had occurred, the road to recovery was long and at times rocky. Carl contacted Juan Figallo, one of those Pumas who visited in Mendoza, to ask him to mentor Luke through his rehab, which was led by Jonathan George, Jamie’s brother who is a physio at Saracens.

“It was tough getting all the rehab done but I knew I had to do it to play again and I was determined to do that,” says Luke, now 18. “Once I got told I could still play that’s all I had eyes on.”

Luke made his return in the school second team a little over a year after breaking his neck and was playing in the first XV just a few weeks later. Carl has chronicled the whole journey in a new book, A Break in Mendoza, that is raising money for the RFU Injured Players Foundation.

“There are two themes to the book,” says Carl. “One is Luke’s resilience, courage and determination. The other is the support of the rugby family, its ethos and values.”

Food for thought

Rugby clubs have all been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic but community spirit remains, with Richmond FC a prime example. As soon as rugby had to shut down in March, the club turned their attention to helping the most vulnerable in the area with food bank collections and providing second-hand laptops to families struggling with homeschooling.

During the summer, Richmond used their allocation from the London Community Response Fund to provide local schoolchildren with a cooked meal each day, as well as a cold packed lunch with help from the local college and Carluccio’s restaurant. It meant finding out who needed help through the club’s partner schools, bringing back two catering staff from furlough to cook the meals and recruiting volunteers to deliver them.

Then in October, after the Government denied Marcus Rashford’s petition to extend free school meals into half-term, the club whizzed into action again. This time there was no external funding to cover the costs involved but the club were able to raise the necessary money.

Celebrating rugby’s real heroes

Bagged up: Volunteers from Richmond deliver meals to local schoolchildren (Getty Images)

“We couldn’t not do something so it was how we could get it off the ground,” explains Dom Palacio, Richmond’s head of community rugby. “Ultimately we’re losing money hand over fist at the moment because there is no play, so the first question was how would the club pay for it.

“We had a small amount, a few hundred pounds, left from the summer budget, so we went with that and then put a call out to help us with donations via JustGiving. The community support was huge, with almost £4,500 raised in a week.”

The club also reached out to more schools to identify children in need and what started as 44 meals on the Monday had grown to 98 by the end of the week. “People have been so grateful for the help – it’s been a really humbling experience,” says Palacio.

“The easy thing for people to do is sit on the sofa as there’s not much rugby going on, but this has been a positive way to give back to society.”

This article originally appeared in the January 2021 edition of Rugby World magazine.

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