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 Joe Vernon.
Having previously struggled to participate and express himself in mainstream sport, Joe has thrived in Sale Sharks’ mixed ability setup since being introduced to rugby while at college.
Delivered as part of the Project Rugby programme, and with support from the Sharks Community Trust, students at Carmel College in St Helens were given a chance to engage in several taster sessions, aimed at increasing involvement in the sport for everyone regardless of background or ability.
Joe has autism and did little exercise before discovering rugby, often finding it difficult to fit in and join sports teams, but he quickly developed a passion for rugby and progressed to after-school sessions at West Park RUFC in St Helens.
The simplified and carefully adapted activities enabled Joe to establish himself as an adept player on the field, while the combination of sport and the safe surroundings have improved his mental health and helped him lead a heathier, happier lifestyle.
Away from his playing commitments Joe has developed strong relationships with others involved in the Project Rugby operation, while he has also become a dedicated follower of Sale Sharks’ first-team exploits.
Project Rugby programme aims to challenge the traditional perceptions of rugby and increases participation in the game by under-represented groups, including Black, Asian & Minority Ethnic people, people from lower socio-economic backgrounds and disabled people.
Since launch, more than 50,000 young people have been introduced to rugby through the initiative who wouldn’t otherwise have had access.
Georgie Perris-Redding, Sale Sharks Community Coordinator - who met Joe while working as disability and inclusion coordinator for the Community Trust - said: “Joe is an amazing character - he’s very confident and he’s got lots of stories to tell, but I do think that the rugby sessions really did help to bring him out of his shell.
“I don’t think he necessarily suited the mainstream way of doing things, and the Project Rugby sessions enabled him to feel comfortable in an inclusive environment, and just enjoy himself.
“He loves to kick the ball and he’s definitely come on leaps and bounds in terms of his rugby, but his social skills have definitely got better too. He feels he can socialise and make friends more easily, and he developed a great relationship with then Sharks first-team player George Nott.
“Even though George is at London Irish now they’re still in touch, and Joe is a big Sale fan and has competed on the AJ Bell pitch at half-time. Project Rugby has really improved his independence, and I think he’s enjoyed being slightly less reliant on his parents.”
The Covid-19 pandemic put a temporary halt on Joe’s rugby endeavours, but Georgie is in no doubt that he has kept himself busy over the last 14 months.
She said: “I still stay in touch with Joe’s mum and I receive regular photos and videos of him, so I can stay up to date with what he’s up to. He has parrots and is teaching them how to speak, so I’m sure he’s keeping himself occupied!
“I know there has been a big push to get Project Rugby sessions back up and running as soon as possible in the wake of the pandemic. The programme is so valuable and vital in getting so many people back out playing rugby.”
Georgie added: “I think all aspects of Project Rugby are hugely important, with disability being one key area. I think access to provisions like sport often gets overlooked for disabled people, and Project Rugby addresses that.
“One of the things that works so well is that it’s full circle with the professional game. With first-team players getting involved and Project Rugby participants going to games it works hand-in-hand, and without all the different elements you wouldn’t get the full picture.”
James Fletcher, Branch Director at Gallagher and club liaison for Sale Sharks, added: “As the title partner of Premiership Rugby, we are passionate about giving something back to the grassroots game, and encouraging more young people to get involved in the game is a really important part of that.
“We know first-hand the powerful role rugby can play in terms of enabling young people to realise their true potential, as well as helping individuals develop important life skills, such as teamwork and resilience. Joe’s story really demonstrates the transformational effect Project Rugby is having in terms of engaging so many youth players with initiatives such as these, and positioning the game as an inclusive, welcoming and exciting sport for all to enjoy.”
To find out more about Project Rugby and to find a session near you, visit www.projectrugby.co.uk.