During World Autism Awareness week, RW focuses on a worthwhile initiative taking place behind the scenes at Allianz Park

Rugby has had its fair share of tawdry headlines in recent months; allegations of on-field cheating, player strikes, dissatisfaction with residency laws, hiring and the firing of coaches and internecine squabbling between administrators. It’s enough discontent to leave guardians of the game feeling rugby is in danger of losing its soul.

Fortunately, for all the brouhaha swirling around the elite level of the game, there are significant efforts being made away from the back pages that do rugby a great deal of credit.

Every Monday evening in Barnet, a leafy part of North London, you’ll find an inspiring coaching session in full swing, which has extra resonance during Autism Awareness week.

The Saracens Foundation have been running a pioneering programme for kids with autism and other learning disabilities for over two years, with student volunteers putting the aspiring rugby players through their paces. One Saracens player to lend his considerable expertise is England hooker Jamie George. “As a trustee of the Sarries Foundation I’ve been involved for a couple of years. The fact it’s the only programme of its kind in terms for helping kids with autism and other learning difficulties through rugby make it worthwhile,” he says, while preparing for his Champions Cup quarter-final against Glasgow.

Will Fraser and Jamie George

Helping hand: Will Fraser and Jamie George lend their support to Sarries RFC

From his regular visits to Allianz Park on Monday nights, George says the overwhelming impression left is of the happiness it brings to not only kids but their parents. “Seeing the reaction of the parents was really powerful. Lots of them are full-time carers and the training session affords them a couple of hours to relax, chat to other parents, play cards or even catch 40 winks because it’s a 24/7 care. That’s invaluable.”

Other members of the Sarries squad to pop down and get involved include Neil de Kock, Will Fraser and Chris Ashton. All are keen to help pass on their hard-earned experience.

George, a lifelong Sarries man born in Welwyn-Garden-City, says he was attracted to the programme because he felt like he could make a difference.

“This programme jumped out at me, alongside another initiative with Feltham Young offenders institution. If you speak to Ashy and Will, they’re in the same boat. It’s had a real impact on them. Sarries encourage us to broaden our personal development and giving up two hours of our time is the least we can do.”

Heading up the programme is Foundation manager Tom Gamage, who explains the background to the enterprise. “The aim was to go into local schools and colleges and create a disability rugby team for kids with a high functioning disabilities like ADHD, autism and Downs Syndrome where they can learn vital life skills through sport. As well as core rugby skills, we help with sociability as some guys struggle to interact. Our motto is to focus on everyone’s ability, not their disability.”

Backed by Sarries sponsor, Alan Day VW, who actively get involved, with managing director Paul Tanner taking a hands-on role, Gamage explains they can host up to 18 kids with volunteers having induction evenings and the opportunity to upskill in dealing with challenging situations. “I get most satisfaction from seeing the progression made by the kids who have bought into the club. Many are season-ticket holders and mascots, while one of the lads has started to work in the club shop helping with stock-taking.”

Jamie George

Holding the bags; George takes part in a Sarries RFC training session

Gamage stresses that the participation of the Champions Cup and Premiership title holders is fundamental to the programme’s continued success. “To have someone as high-profile as Ashy (Chris Ashton) give up his rest day is a credit to him. Having a little chat with the players, where the common thread is rugby, makes all the difference to the kids.”

When asked for inspiring personal stories, Gamage points to squad captain Mark Sindole, who has been with the initiative from the start. “Mark’s progressed up the ranks. He has high-functioning autism and can get frustrated putting his point across which leads to anxiety but he is now helping younger members with their decision-making which is helping them in everyday life.”

At the end of the season, the squad are going on tour to Coventry to coincide with Sarries last game of the season, against title rivals Wasps. “There will be a lot of travel planning involved. Many of them don’t get to travel outside the M25 because of their special needs but with the help of volunteers and staff members, we’ll be able to organise a meting with like-minded people.”

As for the future, Gamage says the Sarries Sport Foundation would like to see the programme taken up elsewhere. “The more volunteers involved, the bigger numbers we can have. I know Worcester Warriors have started something and we’d like to see local rugby clubs in the area take on this initiative with our support. Most clubs have a Firsts, Seconds, Veterans and Women’s team, so why not have a disability team?

Final words are left to George. “When I first attended, there were only five or six kids and they’re still with us. When I see them they give me a big hug and a high-five – something they’d never have done before. The change in their character and confidence levels is remarkable. I’ve never seen anything like it.”