Deaf Sports Events27th January 2014

Wales Deaf Rugby Triumphs in their 11th International against England

Wales and England Deaf Rugby teams locked horns in the world's first international match on an artificial surface with Wales running out worthy winners

by Peter Hughes - Sports Writer

As the Wales Deaf side faced up to their England counterparts for the 11th time, the match, for the Broadstreet Cup, immediately claimed a place in history as the first rugby international to be played on an artificial surface.

​​The iconic Cardiff Arms Park was a fitting venue for this fixture and the presence of the Arms Park choir to sing traditional Welsh songs and hymns before the game along with the two national anthems helped give this the feeling of a true rugby international. Before the kick off the players were presented to the President of the Welsh Rugby Union, Mr Dennis Gethin.

One of the problems with organising deaf rugby internationals is the differing degree of support for the game in the various rugby playing nations. There was an inaugural World Championship in 2002 with Wales beating favourites New Zealand in the final but, sadly, the tournament has not been played since.

An attempt to set up a match between Wales and a combined Scotland and Ireland XV failed earlier this season so this match was between two of the better organised deaf rugbying nations. Even so, Welsh Team Manager Claire Lewis says that it is not easy persuading players to get involved in the deaf rugby scene. “I think part of that is possibly that these young lads don’t want to admit that they are hard of hearing,” she explains, “They don’t want to admit that they are deaf, it’s like a stigma.” But she believes that there could be solution to this, “We need to have some sort of system when they register with the Welsh Rugby Union that asks are you hard of hearing or are you deaf and then we can go from there and bring them on.”

​The previous fixture between the two sides had seen England claim a convincing 21 – 8 win and, watched by a healthy sized crowd, it was the visitors who had the first opportunity to take the lead in this game with a third minute penalty attempt by scrum half Graham Sage from 38 metres out that fell just short and wide.

They were forced to defend hard in the following minutes with most of the game being played in their half until Wales knocked on close to the England try line. Wales were awarded a penalty at the scrum that followed and once again went on the attack until fullback Wes Pooley crossed for a try converted by Celyn Ashton to give Wales a 7 – 0 lead after 14 minutes.

That score seemed to fire the England side up as they put in some crunching tackles on the Welsh players and Sage got them on the scoreboard with a successful penalty kick from 20 metres out.

Wales came close to extending their lead after 25 minutes, first using their forward power to get deep into the England 22, before spreading the ball wide. The attack ended, however, with a stray pass seven metres from the England try line.

This was the first deaf rugby match at which the referee and his two assistants had officiated, although they knew a number of the players from refereeing them in other games. Assistant referee Steve Curtis admitted that it has been a learning curve for them in terms of the best ways to communicate with different players but he felt they had learnt a lot that they could pass on to other match officials for future games and as for officiating at a future deaf rugby game himself, “No problem.”, he said, “I would look forward to it as well.”

Forward power produced Wales's next opportunity to score, just before half-time as two rolling mauls took them from inside their own half to within inches of the England try line. Wales crossed the line from the following scrum but England managed to hold the ball up to set up a scrum 5. That produced the result Wales were looking for with a second try for Pooley once again converted by Ashton with the final kick of the half, giving the home side a 14 – 3 lead at the interval.

That interval saw the crowd entertained by a rugby 'taster session' for 39 children from six Welsh schools. The Welsh Deaf Rugby Union is currently working in conjunction with the Welsh Rugby Union to run a community project aimed at encouraging some of the 2000 or so severe or profoundly deaf children in Wales to take up the game and their efforts and commitment on the field suggested that the country can be optimistic about turning out a competitive national team for many years to come.

From the restart, Wales were quickly close to the England try line once again, with two successive scrums five metres out followed by another 10 metres out which produced a penalty for Wales quickly taken by No 8 Adam Brake to get close to the try line before prop Dave Wellbeloved crashed over to make the score 19 – 3 with nine minutes of the half gone.

Tempers flared for the first time in the game quarter of an hour into the half, Welsh flanker James Evans and England's replacement outside half Aaron Beesley being addressed by referee Simon Rees after the flare up between the two sides.

The game continued to be played almost exclusively in the England half and from a scrum on the 10 metre line Wales looked set to claim their fourth try of the game with just over an hour of the game gone but centre Sam Gallagher was just unable to reach the final pass.

Watching the action was Bath RFC player Matt Gilbert, profoundly deaf himself and seemingly the only deaf professional sports person in Britain, Matt played in similar games earlier in his career and was impressed with how the standard of the game has risen since his day, commenting afterwards, “The individual standard has got better and there’s a lot more cohesion between the team.” He has no doubt about the value of such games, “It's good to get deaf players together, great for camaraderie and good to give them the opportunity to play for their country.”

While the Welsh fans encouraged their side through singing cheering and signing, England did their best to get back into the game but remained largely penned in their own half. When England were penalised just inside their own half 70 minutes into the game and then conceded a further 10 metres for dissent, it was an easy matter for Celyn Ashton to increase Wales's lead by 3 points.

Three minutes later Wales were on the attack once again and fullback Wes Pooley was able to complete a hat-trick of tries with Ashton adding the conversion from wide out.

The full back had clearly got the taste for scoring as he claimed his fourth try of the game in injury time with Ashton once again successful with a difficult conversion attempt to make the final score Wales 36 England 3.

England were naturally disappointed with the result when the final whistle blew but, given the relative inexperience of the side they will have learnt a lot for future games. As their flanker, Luke Cheyne put it, “It’s not a happy camp but we’ve got 11 new caps in the squad and we'll build them up for the next game.”

Not surprisingly, Wales captain Gareth John was delighted with his side's performance, saying, “The boys trained hard they wanted to win that game badly. Winning that cup back means a lot to us. The game plan worked and we executed it well.”

Gareth plays much of his rugby for Tata Steel who compete in the Swalec Welsh Championship. He believes that competitive deaf rugby games such as this can only benefit players when they return to their regular teams, as he explains, “A lot of boys don’t play at that kind of level and when they get together they show they are capable of achieving more. It has made me a better player for playing at this level.”

Meanwhile, their try scoring hero, Wes Pooley, emphasised the teams enthusiasm for the game, saying, “I think we all would want to play as often as possible and train as much as possible, we’re like a family.”

With a good crowd in attendance and an encouraging level of media interest in the game, the key question therefore seems to be how the sport can build on this success. Welsh team manager Claire lewis is hopeful that her team's triumph can inspire a new generation of players, “That 15 boys out there today, great for the kids to see them play. They see them win and they can think, “hang on, maybe I can do that in 10 years. There’s no reason why they can’t play. Absolutely none.”

And, while representing your country in deaf rugby is a great achievement in itself, Matt Gilbert has demonstrated that you can hold other ambitions in the sport as well.

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Article by Peter Hughes - Sports Writer

posted in Deaf Sport / Deaf Sports Events

27th January 2014