Visually impaired rugby joins the World Cup party as England face Japan in Kumagaya

Visually impaired rugby hits the world stage in Japan

Fancy a bit of rugby? Then close your eyes and picture this: the smell of freshly cut grass; the roar of the crowd; running full pelt down the field; the touchline almost in reach; your winger just to your right; the heavy footsteps of the opposing defender bearing down on you.

Now, open just one eye slightly, squint tightly, and try your best to catch that ball hurtling towards you while avoiding that other defender coming at you headlong even faster!

That may give you an inkling of an idea as to what teams playing visually impaired rugby face each time they take to the field. And on Monday, visually impaired (VI) rugby will hit the world stage as part of the Rugby World Cup in Japan.

In recent years, The Change Foundation (TCF) in the UK, with its visually impaired coaches and players, has developed VI rugby as a seven-a-side touch version, played with an adapted ball that makes a noise to help players locate it when it’s moving.

In partnership with the Wasps Legends Charitable Foundation, TCF established the first VI rugby teams in England and launched the game with a series between the ‘Blind Lions’ and the ‘Blind Blacks’ in New Zealand during the 2017 British & Irish Lions tour.

On 14 October, which is a National Holiday of Sport and Health, the Visually Impaired Rugby Festival will feature a three-match series between England and Japan at Kumagaya Stadium.

England Visually Impaired Rugby team

Ready to go: the England VI team. Top (from left): Si Ledwith, Jack Pearce, Dan Linekar (coach), Ryan Jones, Christopher Styles. Bottom: Gareth Davies, Alex Bassan (head coach), Mathew Lancett (TCF)

The Change Foundation will also be showcasing VI rugby as part of the Festival of Rugby that is running throughout the World Cup. The finale is a match between a combined Japan and England Visually Impaired team and a Wasps Legends team captained by former England and Lions lock Simon Shaw and including ex-France flanker Serge Betsen.

“I’m delighted to be able to support this brilliant cause by putting the boots on in Japan,” Shaw says. “The Wasps Legends Charitable Foundation have done a great job supporting the development of this new form of the game. It’s brilliant that the rugby family is reaching out to players who up to now thought they could never play our great game.”

The event will run from 11am to 3pm, is free to attend and everyone is welcome.

The England VI team includes a Welshman, Gareth Davies, who was diagnosed in his teens with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic condition that causes tunnel vision. He now has just 10% vision in his left eye. “I was born in Wiltshire but my dad Dwyfor is a Welsh speaker from Ystalyfera and my late mum was from Clydach and I’ve lived in Wales for more than 20 years,” he told the BBC last year.

“My kids Nia and Lloyd take the mickey out of me for being born in England, but I think they’re really proud of me. I would have loved to play for Wales if they had a team.”

Also in the team is Si Ledwith, who was instrumental in creating the sport, as Rugby World reported two years ago. He told us then: “Our overall goal was to make the game look and feel as much like mainstream rugby as possible whilst still being accessible. So we have scrums and lineouts but they’re uncontested. We still create the patterns and scenarios of rugby but take away some of the danger.

“We’ve not reinvented the wheel. It’s based around rugby sevens, two-handed touch, but we’ve developed a ball that has some sound, both in hand when running and in the air when passed. We simply filled it with a thousand ball bearings so that it rattles.”

Blind Blacks v Blind Lions, 2017

Blind ambition: New Zealand’s Cory Herberley in action. Now VI rugby will be played in Japan (QBE)

Ledwith hadn’t been allowed to play rugby at school on account of his visual impairment – he was born blind in his left eye and very short-sighted in his right. His sight was restricted still further by an accident on the cricket field in 2015, the ball hitting him in the eye and causing a brain haemorrhage that rendered him totally blind for two weeks.

“Fortunately the blood drained away but I can’t see anywhere near what I used to. I’m one of the lowest-sighted in the team and I was on the left wing because I can only see out of my right eye. You might have one of the tunnel-vision guys slightly wider so he can look across the line and communicate to those who aren’t seeing the line as well. It’s an interesting dynamic and the referee is key because he’s kind of a commentator.”

VI rugby ambassadors Andy Robinson and Ian McKinley have helped prepare the team for Japan. Robinson’s father was blind and had matches audio described while McKinley lost an eye following injury in 2011 but went on to play for Benetton and Italy. McKinley plans to take the field at TCF’s showcase event in 2020, the VI Rugby Six Nations demonstration event.

Ian McKinley, Italy v Ireland

Figurehead: Ian McKinley, playing for Italy against Ireland in August, is a VI rugby ambassador (Getty)

Related content: Ardie Savea wears goggles against Canada

Throughout next year, TCF will work with each of the Six Nations teams to develop the sport in their countries. In England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, TCF will work with the home unions to select a ‘Blind Lions’ team to travel to South Africa to play the ‘Blind Boks’ during the 2021 British & Irish Lions tour.

Keep track of all the news from Japan via our Rugby World Cup home page.

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Kumagaya Rugby Stadium

Grand setting: Kumagaya Stadium staged three games at RWC 2019 and will now feature VI rugby (Getty)