The Rugby World Cup 2019 may now be firmly in the rear-view mirror, but fans of the sport can look forward to another international tournament in Cork this summer.
The International Mixed Ability Rugby World Tournament will be hosted by Sunday’s Well RFC between June 7 and 12, providing opportunities for people with and without disabilities from across Europe and beyond to unite in competitive sports, educational workshops, and the added guarantee of an Irish welcome by the River Lee.
The tournament will see 24 mixed ability teams from across the world competing over the week, with players, supporters, and spectator numbers expected to run into the thousands.
Sunday’s Well RFC were chosen to host the tournament after their support for the first Irish mixed ability team, the Sunday’s Well Rebels, who have inspired change in the sports governing body and led to the creation of several new MA teams. Co-founded by Liam Maher and Alan Craughwell, both longtime members of Sunday’s Well RFC, the event has grown from a standalone effort six years ago into an international gathering destined to rank amongst the most notable sporting occasions of 2020.
“We saw a need for people of mixed ability to play rugby, and with the blessing of the club, began training in January 2014 with 13 players,” said Mr Maher.
We progressed through that season, and in 2015 we travelled to the inaugural Mixed Ability World Cup staged in Bradford in the UK. The Sunday's Well Rebels were among 12 teams participating, and we won it.
With the confidence garnered by the win, the club put in a bid to host the 2017 tournament, but lost out partly due to not having official IRFU backing at the time. Hosted by Vitoria-Gasteiz, capital of Spain’s Basque Country, the second tournament again saw the Sunday’s Well Rebels winning their way to the final — only to be narrowly beaten.
“We were determined to eventually bring the tournament to Cork, and put a lot of effort into bringing the IRFU on board and promoting what we saw as the tremendous potential of mixed ability rugby. Happily, our persistence paid off and the IRFU are now fully behind us and will be very involved.”
The staging of the event in Cork marks a significant achievement for Sunday’s Well RFC, and further acknowledges the leading role which the club now plays in championing mixed ability rugby.
“Obviously we are exceptionally proud that Cork has been chosen to host IMART 2020. That decision, I think, is in part due to Ireland's international reputation as a rugby powerhouse, but it also has much to do with our own growing reputation in mixed ability sport. Mixed ability is about valuing everyone’s potential and celebrating what’s at the heart of true sport — participation, passion, and fun,” Mr Maher added.
The mixed ability model encourages social inclusion by removing barriers to participation for people who feel unable to join mainstream grassroots clubs or groups due to physical or learning disabilities, mental health issues, size, shape, age, prolonged inactivity, or a perception of ‘not being good enough’.
For Mr Maher and his enthusiastic cohorts, Cork 2020 will be an ideal stage to take the sport to yet another level, and spread the word to the wider sporting universe. “We hope the tournament will enhance interest, participation, and interaction of people of all abilities in the sport across Ireland and beyond, and help to build new connections between grassroots clubs, educational institutions, communities, and local authorities.”
An event of such size requires preparation, dedication, and a healthy spirit of volunteerism — all of which Sunday’s Well RFC have already demonstrated in spades.
However, the question of funding is one of the major hurdles the organisers are deeply committed to, with less than six months to go. “Fortunately, the European Commission, through theErasmus+ Not-for-profit European Sport Events initiative, has agreed to provide €500,000 in funding, but which needs to be matched by 40% funding on our side,” Mr Maher said.
We can see about 50% of that gap at the moment, and are working hard on closing it. To date we have managed to secure €200,000 from local businesses, including our headline sponsor, Permanent TSB. We’re hoping to raise the remainder from corporate entities and government organisations.
The Erasmus+ scheme supports events aimed at promoting social inclusion, equal opportunities, and raising awareness of the barriers confronting many EU citizens. The support from Europe is a potential game-changer in enabling the future showcasing of a wider array of mixed ability sports, including boxing, rowing, and running.
Alan Craughwell, Sunday’s WellRebels co-founder, added: “The support of the European Commission will allow us to leave a legacy long after the tournament. Sport truly is leading the way in inclusion, and the rest of society is sure to follow.” #The value of the event to Cork in terms of visitor spend is estimated in excess of €3m.
In addition to the expected national coverage, a social media campaign, #BetterTogether, will also promote the June event. A post-tournament photographic exhibition which will travel to participating European countries and beyond. As well as the sporting action where teams will compete for both the ‘Winners’ Cup,’ and the ‘Spirit of Mixed Ability Rugby Trophy’ awarded to the team who best embodies rugby core values, the tournament will incorporate additional strands.
The academic programme will offer internationally-known speakers and researchers from sport, education, and advocacy fields, outlining paths to inclusion in sport for people of all abilities in a participatory and interactive environment. The Social Strand, in which Cork hospitality will be on vivid display, will include concerts and post-match events for players, supporters, and spectators.
“Ultimately, IMART 2020 in Corkintends to promote a long-lasting shift in perceptions and behaviours around diversity, removing the barriers which prevent people of all abilities from enjoying mainstream sporting activities,” Mr Maher said.
“Basically, it is about using the power of rugby and education to make this world a better place.”