Today we meet Jess and discover the big difference that joining one of the world’s first female mixed ability rugby teams has made to her life, thanks to Project Rugby and Bath Rugby Foundation.
Premiership Rugby's Project Rugby programme, delivered in conjunction with Gallagher, has been one of the game’s great success stories in recent years – introducing thousands of young people every year to rugby as a game for everyone, regardless of background or ability.
Delivered by Gallagher Premiership clubs at more than 200 locations across the country, Project Rugby has already changed many young lives for the better with a number of stars emerging – including Jess, and this is her story:
The Bath Rugby Foundation team has known Jess since she was 13 years old, when they first started delivering multi-sports coaching at Three Ways, the community special school she attended which provides for 220 children with a wide range of special education needs. The relationship then grew over years of delivery at Peasedown Youth Club where the team delivered outreach programmes, such as Door Step Club.
Jess is a character. She’s the team player who will tell you straight and act all hard, but actually has a huge vulnerability.
Initially she will be apprehensive and confidence has been an issue, but she always ends up completing and excelling at every challenge.
Jess is a young lady with cerebral palsy, ASD and Type 2 diabetes but she certainly doesn’t let this stop her and will have a go at anything, especially sports. She has engaged in all touch and contact rugby sessions on her own, with her peers supporting her throughout the games.
Project Rugby came into Jess’ life last year and it’s had a really transformative effect at a time of important transition in her young life.
Since completing her college course with Project Search and Bath College in July 2018, Jess has been looking for work. She has also moved into supported housing and is now living independently in the city centre. This was a great way to develop her independence skills, but Jess also found it isolating, especially after finishing college and facing the challenge of seeking employment.
But in March 2019 she joined the newly-formed Bath Rugby Ladies Mixed Ability Team - one of the first female Mixed Ability teams in the world. This is delivered as part of Project Rugby and is making rugby accessible for females within the Bath area who have disabilities or long-term health conditions.
Project Rugby is a Premiership Rugby initiative, delivered in partnership with Gallagher, which challenges the traditional perceptions of rugby and increases participation in the game by targeting under-represented groups.
Jess joined with limited experience of rugby and has become a larger than life character of the team, making everybody laugh and feel welcome around her.
Her rugby skills have improved dramatically, going from rarely running or catching the ball to now being able to hit ruck shields and participate in a full mixed ability game.
The social side of being a part of a team has had a hugely positive impact on Jess, helping battle the isolation she had been feeling earlier in the year.
She now has a new group of friends within rugby and enjoyed her end-of-season awards dinner, unassisted, with her fellow teammates. When Jess first began to attend sessions she had a personal assistant standing beside her on the field.
On the pitch, Jess was initially very nervous and would often have to ‘pop to the toilet’ on multiple occasions during a session. As the weeks went on her confidence markedly improved; she no longer takes breaks, participates fully with her peers and the sessions are not being adapted for her.
In addition to this, Jess attends fixtures on her own and training sessions with limited support from her PA. She now asks them to wait in the clubhouse for her because she doesn’t require the support she used to.
Lynne Fernquest, Bath Rugby Foundation Chief Executive said: “Since joining the Bath Ladies Mixed Ability Team, through Project Rugby, we’ve seen Jess’ natural tenacity and determined spirit develop into greater levels of self-assurance and self-reliance. This has shone through in her confidence to try new things and approach new people, linking up with new players and networks, and creating a core group of friends for her to socialise with outside of rugby.
“This has also enabled Jess to really begin relishing her new life of independent living and she even found a work placement at a city centre cafe through her links with the rugby club. We’re very proud of all that Jess has achieved, and continues to achieve.”
In June 2019 Jess’ achievements were recognised when she was a finalist in the Premiership Parliamentary Awards.
In 2020 Jess embarked on her next step with Bath Rugby Foundation, joining the Bath Rugby HITZ employability programme.
Project Rugby is a joint initiative launched in 2017 by Premiership Rugby in collaboration with England Rugby, with Gallagher adding its backing in March 2019 as part of its commitment to support not only the professional game but also champion rugby at the grassroots level as a truly inclusive sport.
It is designed to increase participation in the game by people from traditionally underrepresented groups including Black, Asian & Minority Ethnic people, people from lower socio-economic backgrounds and disabled people.
Since launch, more than 45,000 young people have been introduced to rugby through the initiative who wouldn’t otherwise have had access.
Project Rugby is also one of Premiership Rugby’s Community programmes that together form the Plan to Improve a Million Lives. This ambitious community strategy is Premiership Rugby’s commitment to make a positive impact, through rugby, on the lives of one million people by the end of the 2020/21 season.
To find out more about Project Rugby and to find a session near you, visit www.projectrugby.co.uk.
For more information on the Plan to Improve a Million Lives, follow #improveamillionlives and visit www.premiershiprugby.com/community