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The world's best homeless rugby team will be crowned this weekend

The football Homeless World Cup got the ball rolling by using sport to offer a hand up across the globe. Now, Homeless Rugby wants to pick up the idea and run with it

The Homeless World Cup has been an enormous success – using football as a vehicle to bring together homeless people from all over the world to tackle poverty since 2003.

Charity worker Darran Martin saw the tournament kicking on and was inspired to set up an equivalent – this time with an egg-shaped ball.

The sport fanatic launched Homeless Rugby in 2013 then hit the road and pitched his plan to Aviva Premiership and second-tier Championship sides, offering them a chance to get his idea off the ground.

Worcester Warriors answered the call and this weekend the Homeless International Cup will return – a six-a-side touch rugby tournament that will see teams from England, Scotland and Wales face off at Warriors’ Sixways Stadium.

“I think once we had seen the football take off it was all about thinking about what a rugby version would look like,” says Darran. “Homelessness affects everywhere all over the world and rugby is also played all over the world, and we want to bring those two things together.

“If you have a team anywhere then we want to hear from you, we want Homeless Rugby to be as open and as accessible as possible.”

Teaming up with Worcester YMCA, Warriors established the first homeless rugby side in England in 2013 and went on to win Premiership Rugby’s Play Award at the House of Commons the following year.

Now the team is playing up to 50 matches a season against anyone who will take them on.

And the man tasked with coaching the outfit, Worcester Warriors community education programme director Dave Rogers, insists the tournament has come a long way already – and is hoping that a scrum of nations will follow in the next few years.

“The football Homeless World Cup is massive and we are looking to follow that model long-term,” he says. “But rugby is also massive in certain areas of the country and the sport can have a huge impact. Take, for example, that the first homeless touch rugby team was started in Worcester – it’s not where you would expect something like this would start.

“That’s the same case for the Welsh team in Newport. We want to keep building on it – the event this year is in Worcester again but we want to take it to Scotland and Wales, we want to get Ireland involved and we want to take it further. Why not to France? Or Italy?”

Scotland joined the fray in 2016, working with housing association NG Homes and their course-led approach, which includes rugby project School of Hard Knocks, which went on to be the subject of a Sky TV show. The tournament became a tri-nations clash the following year with links to Welsh side The Dragons.

Of course, victory is not only measured by the overall winner of the tournament – work off the pitch is just as crucial. Every player lining up on Saturday will have their own story of mistakes and misfortune. But playing team sport provides a distraction and gives often-isolated people a chance for much-needed socialising, reducing the strains on mental health that homelessness brings.

Playing rugby helped me get through all the stuff that had led to me being homeless

Skills that are transferable to life off the pitch also figure, with the chance to develop discipline and leadership. It also gives that all-important boost to players’ confidence and self-esteem.

And rugby’s relatively lower profile compared to football can work in its favour, says founder Darran.

“Rugby is a great leveller. So many people have played football before and some haven’t and so there is a difference in skill levels,” he adds.

“A lot of the people who play rugby with us have never played before – everyone is starting from the same point and going on the same journey so rugby has a lot of value in that sense. And people have shown that, by playing, they have built up good leadership and other skills that can transfer off the pitch.”

England player Richard Oxenbury knows this more than most.

He had not played rugby since his school days when his key worker introduced him to Homeless Rugby while he was in Worcester’s YMCA in 2013 and recovering from spiralling drink and drug problems that cost him his job and home.

“Playing rugby helped me get through all the stuff that had led to me being homeless – all the drink and the drugs – because I could keep myself busy and not think of anything else,” says Richard, 29, who is now a delivery courier.

“This definitely put me on a positive path and I’ve now got myself a home, into full-time employment and I have a partner and two kids so a lot has changed for me in the last four years.”

The transformation has been stark on the field too – with team veteran and some-time captain Richard now providing mentoring to new team members.

“A year ago I did a short video with World Rugby and when I look back I can barely recognise myself – I look so much healthier now,” he says.

“We don’t think about it as a homeless team, we think about it as a bunch of mates having a laugh and socialising – that’s all it is.

“Without Homeless Rugby I would probably still be partying and taking drugs and drinking – I would probably be dead.”

MEET THE TEAMS

Team Scotland

“How the team actually works in Scotland is quite different to England and Wales,” says Greg Cann, Homeless Rugby Scotland director and NG Homes Pitstops project manager. “It is run out of our Pitstops programme and we largely work with post-course engagement so if people enjoy courses like School of Hard Knocks and want to do more then we give them the opportunity to get involved with the rugby and turn their course into activity.

1306_rugby_embedScotland

“We were the only truly representative team at the tournament last year with players from Glasgow, Edinburgh and Falkirk. And this year we will also be a truly mixed team with five or six women involved too.”

Team Wales

Callum House, homeless rugby co-ordinator, runs Wales and the Newport Gwent Dragons Homeless Team, set up in October 2016 after a phone call from Worcester. They played their first match that December.

“I ran the Newport Dragons homeless team when Dave invited us to play Worcester in an international fixture last May and it has really gone up a gear this season,” he says.

1306_rugby_embedWales

“Last year’s tournament was terrific. We hadn’t really had many fixtures beforehand but we still played really well – everyone just goes up a level at the tournament – and we just came second to England. This year we’re coming back to take the trophy.”

Team England

Dave Rogers, Worcester Warriors community education programme director and the man behind the England team, says: “One of the biggest problems with homelessness is being isolated and stuck in one place. What our players say to us is the team aspect is so important – it gives them a great feeling to be part of a team and have that camaraderie, especially when we go to away games. When they play other teams, they have food put on and things like that – they are treated just like any rugby club.”

1306_rugby_embedEngland

The Homeless International Cup will take place at Sixways Stadium in Worcester on May 12. For more details head to homelessrugby.org  

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