Feel Good Friday Story - Port Talbot Panthers
After identifying that Neath Port Talbot was the only the Local Authority that did not have a mixed ability rugby team our ‘Sports Volunteer of the Year’, Andrew Harris, who has a passion for rugby, saw a call to action and decided to do something about it.
After the initial planning meeting between the Disability Sport Wales officer, the WRU Disability Rugby coordinator and Andrew, things were off to a good start.
Andrew was and remains very keen and decided to take the lead in creating the new inclusive club and undertook a lot of the start-up work and generated the interest from players in the community. Some of the other challenges he faced were in identifying how the inclusive club would benefit our community? Generate and identify funds, recruit players, complete the paperwork involved and organise matches. A lot to be getting on with but with guidance and support from those involved in creating these opportunities Andrew was sure to make it a success.
The club was established, after all the correct procedures were signed off. The Port Talbot Panthers mixed ability rugby team consists of players, volunteers and supporters with and without disabilities. With the aim to provide a safe, inclusive and friendly environment in which to encourage participation and interaction from people with all abilities and backgrounds. Everyone is welcome and the club is keen to attract more players, volunteers and supporters to get involved in the game, make friends and have fun. The focus is very much on developing the ability of the players who are supported according to their individual needs to achieve their potential within the team.
The club successfully had its first birthday in September 2020, an achievement considering the work and what the global pandemic has thrown at it. There are 75 members and 35 are training weekly. When COVID-19 struck in March 2020, the team managers knew this was going to hit the club and the players hard. The most worrying factor for them being the mental health and welfare of some of the players the club had been set up to support.
This has not just been any old rugby team set up. The mixed ability members have shown great improvements over the first 12 months. Such as improved confidence, improved skills in behaving in a challenging situation and friendships formed. This has provided some with an opportunity to a more functional part of their community and not just the game of rugby which Andrew identified as the tool to allow others to flourish.
So came the clubs next challenge. How were they going to keep their players and coaches safe whilst still providing the opportunities that some of its members had come to rely on so heavily? An added concern was the financial impact of a prolonged restriction to sporting opportunities that both require and generate funding.
A few of the clubs members struggled to cope with the restrictions they faced. There were those that suffered with mental health issues due to the isolation, lack of stimulation and interaction they had become accustomed to since putting on a Panther jersey. Other members also struggled financially and found it difficult to find the money to pay for basic amenities such as food and household bills.
Some members were not allowed to leave the house due to their condition and were required to shield during lockdown, having no exercise and in the worst cases the club faced members losing their jobs. The club did its best and pulled together to ensure their members knew they had somewhere to turn for support and a friendly face. When the Panthers were once again allowed train, the club looked to generate transport as a lot of players can’t drive and being unable to share lifts with other members not from their household provided a difficult barrier to overcome.
More than two-thirds of adults in the UK (69%) reported feeling somewhat or very worried about the effect COVID-19 is having on their life. The most common issues affecting wellbeing are worry about the future (63%), feeling stressed or anxious (56%) and feeling bored (49%). (Health.org.uk)
The main focus during the pandemic was to keep the comradery, interaction and connections that the club provided alive. In keeping with the team spirit social media groups were created to allow members to interact and continue to build the relationships they had formed.
To help with this, each team member received a happy birthday picture and best wishes posted on the Panthers RFC Facebook page. These small and prior to the pandemic overlooked opportunities, to show support for each other are having a positive outcome for the team and its members. Andrew knew that the club needed to maintain communications with all its members for them and the club to survive this terrible pandemic. Media posts and Zoom meetings became the new platform that the club would use to maintain that which they had strived to create.
To help with the funding issues, previously a Community Chest grant had been awarded and a new Be Active fund application was also successful. This funding was used to provide the extra PPE and sanitary equipment required to create a COVID-19 compliant environment in which they could train.
Once the club could create the safe environment required for its members to train and meet, they moved quickly to arrange small outdoor group sessions as soon as regulations allowed, in order to improve the mental and physical wellbeing of its members. For some this was still not an option due to their condition, so coaches conducted online fitness sessions where required.
Throughout the pandemic the correct procedures and government advise was followed. Once the restrictions allowed training to take place the players were thrilled and it felt like a family reunion. The numbers at training have been excellent and split down into the correct group sizes to abide by the social distancing rules. The team has once again started training twice a week due to the demand from the players. There has been a definite improvement in health and well-being since resuming training.
To lift spirits, Panthers RFC received a small donation of Ospreys jerseys which were presented to players and children that assisted the club with the maintenance in morale during the pandemic. The Panthers were also filmed by Macron for the advertisement of the new Welsh rugby jersey, which the players were thrilled about.
The Panthers RFC and its members have set the standard for others to follow. By understanding that they needed to maintain communications with all members, to ensure they receive the support, opportunity to interact through innovative ideas has ensured the mental and physical wellbeing of the many.
For this relatively new inclusive team, there were going to be challenges from the start but they worked through this and have achieved awards such as their insport ribbon and successfully become the league winners. Not content with just winning the league, the team were second in the UK for the most mixed abilities rugby games played during the same season.
COVID-19 2020 did effect this club, but the club and its members stood together and the positives have by far outweighed the negatives, making every one of its members even more proud to wear the Panther jersey in the future.
The club would hope to become more inclusive in the future, opening its doors even wider to include females and children in order to increase overall participation and to develop further opportunities for those in the community. With the long term goal being the pilot for others in the region to create their own mixed ability rugby teams in area such as Neath, Maesteg and Bridgend.
(Andrew Harries – Team Manager has given permission for this Case study)