Today we meet Chris who, thanks to school taster sessions run by Project Rugby and the ongoing support of London Irish, has flourished into a full-contact rugby-loving player for Newbury RFC’s disability hub club and the Exiles’ mixed ability side.
Premiership Rugby's Project Rugby programme, delivered in conjunction with partner 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 Rugby clubs at more than 200 locations across the country, Project Rugby has already changed many young lives for the better with a number of bright stars emerging – including Chris, and this is his story:
Chris Pullinger had never even thought about playing rugby – until Project Rugby and the pioneering community work of London Irish Foundation arrived in his life.
Chris, who has autism, excelled so much in Project Rugby sessions at Castle School that he has not only gone on to play at Newbury RFC’s disability hub club but also shine in full contact games for London Irish Foundation mixed ability team.
A naturally reserved and shy individual who initially got involved in tag rugby, Chris was undeterred every step along the way as he grew in confidence with the help of London Irish, London Irish Foundation and the Project Rugby programme.
“Chris’ move to the mixed ability was great because he is quite shy, and our mixed ability team is a combination of some of the other disability schools we work with and our HITZ programme” explained Joe Pegg, Foundation Manager at London Irish.
“The individuals naturally have very varied levels of skill and playing capability and it was quite daunting for Chris initially. But he did so well – even with the challenging things for him like getting onto the team bus.
“That’s probably something that we didn’t envisage him doing straight away but he did, got involved with the rugby and we played at a pretty established team in Walcott Warriors.
“It was a great opportunity for Chris and he flourished, especially at the disability club where we taught him how to tackle, land safely and the main rules of the game.
“He actually ended up getting involved in the lineout and the scrums - he evolved so much, so quickly. He threw himself right in which was so good to see.
“Going to contact rugby was a big leap for Chris, but he gained more confidence from the non-contact and then began tackling people at the right pace.
“It’s daunting for anyone, particularly someone like Chris that hasn’t come from a particularly sporty background, but he was fantastic.”
Project Rugby is designed to increase participation in the game by people from traditionally under-represented groups including Black, Asian & Minority Ethnic people, those from lower socio-economic backgrounds and those with disabilities.
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.
And, if Chris’ inspiring story is anything to go by, then that number could be just the beginning.
Joe added: “The first time I noticed a difference with Chris was when he first got involved with a lineout. He was with eight or nine guys from our HITZ programme, they all come from different backgrounds with different circles of friends.
“It was the first time I saw him embrace the group and they embraced him; he was a really valued member. From then on he got more and more stuck in – and as we were playing he would ask more questions.
“At first he was reserved with aspects like the landing, but he really grew into it and that was the beauty of seeing Chris develop.”
And it’s not just on the pitch where Project Rugby participants, like Chris, develop and feel the benefit of being involved in the programme.
“We’ve some great feedback from Castle School,” explained Joe. “Involvement with Project Rugby has been shown to help the kids’ punctuality and their attendance. There’s a lot more to it than just playing rugby.
“Our hardest challenge is to keep finding the right exit routes and progression opportunities for participants. They’re so good and Chris is a prime example. For him, mixed ability rugby was the perfect stepping stone.”
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