Unified Rugby Opening Doors For Athletes Of All Abilities

The rugby community continues to expand as Unified Rugby creates an adaptive version of the game that can be played by players with and without disabilities

Any rugger would tell you that one of their favorite aspects of playing rugby is being part of an inclusive rugby community. However, as more individuals become excited to play, it is clear that adaptive versions of the sport are needed. With this, Stephane Leblois, Founder & Head Coach with Washington Wolfpack RFC and TRI USA representative, recognized a gap within the rugby landscape and decided to take action.

“Unified sports have really taken off in the US – yet despite offering sports like flag football, soccer, or even bocce, there were no organizations offering rugby as a unified sports option. Knowing that rugby is one of the fastest growing sports in the country and that rugby education programs are popping up in communities everywhere, I wanted to provide the same opportunity and access to rugby education for youth and adults with disabilities so that they may learn how to play on the same level as their peers” Leblois added, referencing the reason behind the creation of Unified Rugby.

Originally created in the UK, Unified Rugby is a slightly adapted version of the game that allows for players with and without disabilities to play the tag or touch version of rugby in a fun and safe way. Unified Rugby allows for players with and without disabilities to play side-by-side, learn from each other, establish friendships and create a community centered around playing rugby.

After learning about Unified Rugby in 2018, Leblois decided to start a unified rugby club in Washington, DC to offer rugby education to people with disabilities in the greater Washington, DC-area and, as he found out later, the first club of its kind in the country.

“When I started this organization, it was with the intent to bring it to the DC area. As it turns out, I am the first club in the country that is promoting this sport, which is really exciting and has proven to be a catalyst for other folks around the country to contact me with ideas on how to start their own Unified clubs” he noted.

Leblois has collaborated closely with Trust Rugby International (based in the United Kingdom) and USA Rugby to establish the club and hopes to eventually create a league of clubs around the country that play unified rugby.

“Getting USA Rugby involved was a no brainer. USA Rugby constantly pushes the envelope to provide education and playing opportunities to underserved communities. USA Rugby has been very supportive of creating a more diverse rugby community in the US and their involvement has been important in raising awareness about Unified Rugby within its network but also to the community at-large.”

The Unified Rugby education model is designed for every learning style, and level of ability possible, “We wanted a curriculum that is designed to be easy, intuitive and fun” he explained.

And that was precisely what participants experienced during the Unified Rugby workshop earlier this month.

“The overwhelming sentiment throughout the day was watching folks with and without disabilities, some of whom were completely new to rugby, find that the sport is surprisingly easy to learn and play. Our training curriculum is game-based, interactive, fun and easy to follow with the goal of teaching players the basics of rugby in an approachable way. By the end of the session, people were playing a full game of rugby, and they didn’t realize how they got there.”

The players with disabilities weren’t the only people who benefitted from the workshop.

“There were three professional players that came to the workshop. While the first thought is that the amateur players would learn from the pros – the reverse ended up being just as true. These athletes were learning what it means to really to interact, mentor, and befriend an individual with disabilities,” Leblois explained. “That moment captures the spirit of Unified Rugby. It is not a one-way mentee-mentor relationship. It is people learning from each other.”

The ultimate goal behind Unified Rugby is to continue to make rugby inclusive to people of all abilities. “The rugby community is one of the most valuable networks a person can have within their local community and around the world. It is important to realize how there are people of all-abilities within that community.”

“Everyone deserves a chance to be part of this wonderful, wider rugby community. And Unified Rugby opens that door for people with disabilities to find their place on the pitch with everyone else,” Leblois concluded.

If you would like to learn more about starting Unified Rugby in your area, contact Stephane Leblois at stephane@tri.group.