Thanet Wanderers SEND Hub youngsters take part in their first International Tagfest

Thanet Wanderers SEND squad Photo Lia Armstrong.

By Andy Bull

Thanet Wanderers SEND (special educational needs/disabilities) hub first came into being two years ago.

The formation followed a discussion between then Thanet Wanderers SEND coach James Green, who is a sports teacher at a special needs school, and the club’s development director Andy Bull, who has a 17 year old with Downs Syndrome.

The pair knew there was a lack of sporting opportunities for children with SEND in the Thanet area and decided the rugby club would step in to fill the breach.

An outline plan was formulated and The Wooden Spoon, Rugby’s charity for children, very quickly became involved as did Inclusive Sport which delivers sports to local children with SEND.

Money was raised through Sport England, specialist equipment was purchased, and a crew of vastly experienced coaches was assembled from both inside and outside of the club.

Mario Garcia (pictured), the club’s under 7’s coach stepped in as Head Coach and immediately struck up the perfect rapport with the younger ones.

A wide range of programmes were formulated and the number attending, on Tuesday evenings, soon reached 25+

A post training meal and the facility to socialise was an integral part of every session. Everything was progressing nicely, the children were enjoying the sessions, but it soon became very apparent that there was one very important ingredient of the sport missing – competition,

Wanderers’ Community Director Vicki Flower  is an enthusiastic supporter of Wooden Spoon both as a player and fundraiser. She heard the charity was planning an International Tagfest for SEND children to be held on June 22 in Coventry. Andy Bull then received an invitation to attend from event sponsor Matt Mitchell and it was time to raise the funds for the expedition and gear the SEND section up for competitive rugby.

Fun and exercise at Thanet Wanderers SEND sessions

The club very quickly stepped in, a fundraising lunch was organised and raised 50% of the target. Wooden Spoon then joined in and generously helped every club with their travelling and accommodation expenses.

The CT10 Parochial Charity heard about the tournament and the target was nearly reached. Some tough negotiations with kit suppliers, hotels and coach companies ensued and at the beginning of June everything was booked and ready to go.All that was left was to get the youngsters ready to play!

To many of the children who attend the sessions, to play as part of  a team is a very new experience and for some the challenge of even stepping into the clubhouse can be a very difficult and daunting one. ADHD, ASD, ODD, Global Delay, Epilepsy and Cerebral Palsy are amongst the challenges many of the children face and so their preparation for the tournament had to be carefully managed. Special squad sessions were organised for those who chose to go to the tournament.

Fun at the hub

The numbers were lower than usual, allowing a greater coach to child ratio. Playing kit started to arrive, hoodies were produced, and fun games were organised for the youngsters for the coach journey.

June 21 arrived and the butterflies were definitely fluttering. Everyone arrived at the clubhouse for pre tour pizza and the ceremonial handing out of the kit. The nominated captains, Rory Appleton and Sophia Kelly for the under 15s, and Ashley Cloake for the over 15s, were presented with their playing kit by the head coach Mario Garcia. The captains then presented the kits to each of their squad members.  The coach was packed, and everyone was  off on the big adventure.

It was an early night for most after the long journey up to Coventry but the Saturday dawned brightly and the sun shone all day. The Tagfest was held at Broadstreet Rugby Club, a very impressive ground with a wonderful clubhouse and just as wonderful a welcome. Gazebos were adeptly put up, goody bags given out and it was time to get the players warmed up.

In action at the Tagfest Photo Lia Armstrong.

The highlight of the morning was undoubtedly the team intros where the team was announced over the PA system and the complete squads would run through a tunnel of Wooden Spoon volunteers to the cheering of the rest of the players and spectators.

The rest of the morning was taken up with some warm-up games which enabled the teams to be properly grouped for their afternoon matches. . Even during these early warm-ups, friendships were being forged between the players and the coaches could be seen comparing notes with each other.

Coaches and helpers, Lia Armstrong, Flo Smith, Darren Mountjoy, Mario Garcia and Andy Bull
Photo by Lia Armstrong

During the afternoon, each team played three matches of 8 minutes each way with a 2 minute break. For those players who needed extra support, a coach was allowed onto the pitch with them. The referees were lenient and the true spirit of rugby prevailed throughout the afternoon.

Amazing performances were put in by all the players and the combined results for the two Thanet teams were P6, W4, D1 and L1. This was never about the results, but it is a testament to the coaches that they have been able to prepare the squads in a way that made them so competitive in their first ever matches against another team. Once all of the games had finished it was presentation time and each player and coach were given a wonderful Tagfest medal and each team a Wooden Spoon Tagfest trophy.

Coach Andy Bull said: “I can honestly say that the weekend was probably one of the most enjoyable and enriching I have ever spent. Watching over 200 children and young adults participate in a rugby festival was joyous and even more so because we had a small part in making it possible.”

It will not be long before the Tuesday night training sessions will move to Sunday mornings, so that the SEND players are training alongside their fellow club members on an equal footing, as important a part of the club as anyone else, as capable of scoring a try or grabbing a tag as any other member of the club.

Thanks to all those volunteers who helped to create this wonderful experience for the children.

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