Something quite remarkable happened at Winchester Rugby Club last Saturday morning, when hardened ex-rugby players on the touchline were seen wiping tears from their eyes as a mixed-ability team from Belfast, Malone Tornadoes, played a scratch team of Winchester veteran players. 

The Belfast team included a blind flanker, who was accompanied round the pitch by a sighted minder, several players with different degrees of hearing loss who had to be told in sign language by team mates when referee Pat Burns blew up, several others with cerebral palsy and a winger who had been in the victorious Ulster Gaelic Football team when they won the inter-province competition but after retirement suffered a stroke which left him semi-paralysed on his right side.

The Winchester players drawn from veterans’ team Winchester Knights were all playing in positions other than those they were used to, Director of Rugby Matt Stagg throwing in at lineouts, packing down in scrums at No 8 and functioning as fly half in open play. 

The Ulster Rugby Foundation states: “Mixed Ability Rugby focuses on inclusion and integration of people with disabilities with their non-disabled peers while retaining a healthy level of competition, and does not classify players by physical, intellectual or mental disabilities or barriers.
It also provides an opportunity for current, past, or retired players to play alongside participants with or without disabilities in a 15-a-side full contact game which retains world rugby laws.”

Winchester Rugby Club is proud to have been chosen to host the Tornadoes on their first visit to England. Chairman Steve Barrow said after the match “It doesn’t matter what the final score was. The winner today was the spirit of rugby. We hope to visit Belfast next season for a return match.”

All rugby players from lowliest amateurs to internationals love an after-match party, and the Tornadoes were no exception, joining Winchester supporters for the clubhouse lunch before watching Winchester’s first team beat London Irish, and moving in the evening to sing rugby songs and drink more beer at the Hyde Tavern. There will have been some sore heads on the flight back to Belfast on Sunday.