The first steps towards the creation of a team of French visually impaired rugby players took place in the southern city of Perpignan, when coaches from UK-based charity The Change Foundation (TCF) visited to train up locals.
The aim is to create a team to represent France in an upcoming international tournament to be held in Toulon alongside the men’s Rugby World Cup.
A group of sighted Perpignan players and coaches, with one visually impaired player, were led through drills and practice matches to show how the game can be taught to VI athletes.
TCF created the game of VI Rugby, based on touch rugby, in 2016 and with the help of former England Coach, Andy Robinson set out to ensure that it looked, sounded and felt like any other rugby match.
‘Our goal was to make this adapted version of rugby a new part of the rugby family rather than a stand-alone sport’, says Andy Robinson. ‘Rugby prides itself in being inclusive and we wanted the new visually impaired players to compete on the same pitches as their sighted counterparts, to be part of all the high-profile rugby tournaments and wear the same shirts.’
The French sessions saw instruction from TCF’s Head of Business Development Alex Bassan, with the charity’s CEO Andy Sellins, and Programme Manager Elle Rowley taking part in games.
Alex said: ‘It’s not about teaching the skills of rugby. The people we worked with knew those. It’s about adapting the skills to coach visually impaired people. How to build up confidence in dealing with visually impaired players and how to best use verbal communication skills.
‘For instance there is no point in saying “stand over there” as, to a VI player, where is “there”? Then there is colour co-ordination for training bibs and cones to mark the pitch. Coaches need to ask players if they clash. You won’t always get a unanimous answer but a consensus can be reached.’
Alex also explained the techniques referees need to employ – such as always being on the defensive line and moving with the ball, while keeping talking.
‘If the voice players are hearing is far away, they know the ball is on the other side of the pitch, as it gets louder they know the ball is coming their way,’ he said.
The session developed as more rules were added, such as scrums and line-outs, at a pace Alex chose to enable all players to fully grasp what they needed to learn.
‘By not introducing all rules at the start you don’t overload people,’ he said. ‘At the same time you can see who is getting it and who isn’t. So you can slow down or speed up the instruction, as appropriate.’
Among the Perpignan players was visually impaired Clement Fourcade, who rapidly emerged as a star performer.
His message to TCF was a simple one: ‘Thank you for making me feel like a rugby player again,’ he said.
The coaching was watched by Perpignan’s mayor Louis Aliot, a keen rugby player who also took part in one session.
As Andy Sellins explained the game, the pair realised they had met before – on the rugby field at Lensbury where Andy was playing for the UK’s Lords and Commons team, while Louis, then an MEP, was representing the French parliament.
The French programme followed a match-up in the UK between VI teams from the Worcester Foundation, Harlequins, Cardiff Rugby and Wasps Legends all the players hoping their efforts will lead to their involvement in the four team VI rugby international tournament.
Through the development work of The Change Foundation the game is now played in New Zealand, Japan, Wales, Italy, Ireland and England.
Alex was instrumental in creating the rules and coaching guidelines for the sport and has trained the 300 coaches and officials who now support the 700 players from around the world who currently play the game.
He said: ‘Our aim is to double the number of players each year and from 2024 hold an annual Six Nations competition with a World Cup every four years. The next countries in our sights are Fiji, Georgia, the USA and Australia, who host the 2025 British and Irish Lions and the 2027 Rugby World Cup’.
Currently only around 10 per cent of the players, coaches and officials are female and Elle is leading the charge to get more women and girls involved.
She said: ‘It’s a great game to play and spectators who have not seen it before are amazed at how fast it is and the skill level of the players.
‘I have had so much enjoyment from playing club rugby and the friendships developed last a lifetime and I want all visually impaired players – male and female – to experience the buzz of competing in high quality rugby and perhaps even representing their country’.
VI Rugby is based around Rugby 7’s touch format, and the game-play takes into consideration a wide range of sight conditions whilst maintaining the fundamental codes and laws of rugby.
A ball has been developed that makes a sound when travelling through the air. Filled with bells, this generates noise to help the players hear when it’s moving and referees have to be trained to be very vocal to help players navigate their way around the pitch.
England trials take place in May with the squad then in monthly training camps preparing for the October 9th to 13th tournament, which will involve teams from Wales, England, Ireland and now France with a three-match series between England and Japan quickly following in November.
England VI Rugby captain is Jack Pearce from Macclesfield. He said: ‘Playing rugby for my country has been an amazing experience. I never thought I would be playing rugby with other visually impaired people, let alone playing in internationals.
‘This is so aspirational for visually impaired people and it’s so cool to be sharing pitches and competitions with sighted players who just accept us as part of the rugby family”.
The Wasps Legends Charitable Foundation has been instrumental in supporting the development of the game by raising funds for TCF to train coaches and officials and to host tournaments, including a showcase event during the last Rugby World Cup in Japan in 2019, which saw Wasps Legends Simon Shaw and Serge Betsen come out of retirement to try this new version of rugby.
‘The Legends are delighted to support The Change Foundation in spreading this brilliant new version of the game’’ said Wasps Legends Trustee, Peter Scrivener. ‘And we look forward to the day when the game is played around the globe and a Visually Impaired Rugby Six Nations or World Cup is as common as the men’s and women’s mainstream tournaments.’