Nathan Sharpe breaking down barriers

Leesa Hamilton
by Leesa Hamilton

Nathan Sharpe is an Australian Rugby champion and one of the most capped Wallabies of all time, now he has found a new game: Modified Rugby.

Since the first Modified Rugby Program (MRP) team was formed at Brisbane’s Brothers Rugby Union Club in 2014, the program has grown to include 160 participants across Queensland, with national expansion confirmed for 2017 and global expansion on the horizon.

The Modified Rugby Program allows children with learning and perceptual disabilities to play rugby and become part of a club community. They play on quarter-fields, and each team generally includes four children and four teenage Player Mentors who act as one-on-one coaches during the game, playing alongside the participants to ensure they’re supported.Classic Wallabies Tim Horan and Nathan Sharpe chat to kids from the Modified Rugby Program. Modified Rugby ambassador and former Wallabies captain Nathan Sharpe has seen first-hand how the program has changed lives.

“Modified Rugby has been outstanding in creating a community based around those kids that have learning difficulties – it’s a great opportunity for them to enjoy themselves on the football field and for the parents to meet likeminded people who are going through similar situations,” he said.

“I still remember the first training session we had. The kids were out having a run around and loving it, and the parents were in the clubhouse having a beer together which was just as enjoyable to see because they didn’t have that social outlet previously.

A familiar face in Queensland still accomplishing great things. Photo: Getty Images“For me, it showcases what rugby is all about, that community of people helping each other out.”

GingerCloud Managing Director Megan Elliott, who co-founded the Modified Rugby Program with her husband Anthony says the program aims to create long term pathways for inclusion for the children and their families.

“Rugby clubs already have such vibrant communities, but kids with learning and perceptual difficulties miss out on being part of this.

“Through Modified Rugby we are allowing these kids to become part of a rugby club, and at the same time educating the rugby community. The leadership training for the teenage Player Mentors is a vital part of this strategy, as we’re creating a whole generation and community for whom disability is normalised.

“It means that children with learning and perceptual difficulties and their parents have the opportunity to join a community where they feel safe, included and understood. And by doing this within a club environment, they making friends for life.”

Will Skelton helped out after a Wallabies training session in Brisbane last month. After its success in Brisbane, the demand for Modified Rugby is rapidly growing around Australia and overseas. World Rugby CEO Brett Gosper who connected with Megan via Twitter has been an active champion of Modified Rugby, facilitating a potential pilot program with the RFU in England.

“We’re building carefully, because Modified Rugby is all about how it makes people feel,” said Megan. “We need to make sure that whether it’s in Brisbane, the ACT, Auckland or in the UK, that families get as much out of the program, as they have here in Brisbane.”

“It’s about making sure families experience exactly the same feeling of belonging and understanding, wherever the program is.”