We Meet Founding Member of Blaydon Racers Walking Touch Rugby Team
The Rugby World Cup may be over, but did you know those who are a bit older and less mobile can still get involved with the sport by giving walking rugby a try?
Scoring a try at Twickenham is a dream for any rugby fan, but not many would expect to get the opportunity, even less so when they reach the age of 75. For George, that became a reality at the end of August when his club, the Blaydon Racers, were invited to the Home of England Rugby for a tournament. ‘It was a great achievement,’ says George. ‘There was only five clubs invited to play walking rugby and we were the only one from the North. It was a great privilege for Blaydon to be chosen and even more to go down and play on the turf at Twickenham. That was a real high for us.’
George has always been a rugby fanatic, but his love for the walking variety came later in life. ‘I’ve been a member of Blaydon Rugby Club since 1969,’ he tells us. ‘I went when I was 21 years old and played for 25 years, before stopping because of my age. After that I did no sport at all, until one day I got bowel cancer and the doctor advised I did some exercise to build myself back up again. I started doing a little bit of gym work, and then in 2019 when Durham County RFU and Age Concern wanted to start walking rugby at Blaydon Rugby Club, I thought why not give it a go?
‘On the first day only three people turned up; myself, Bruce Costello who’s the chairman of Blaydon Rugby Club, and Jim Coulson a Northumberland referee and RFU member. Age Concern and Durham County didn’t even come! By the next week, we had three Durham County representatives come along (which was funny because there was as many of them playing as our own players) and that was enough to get me hooked again. I put a poster advertising Blaydon Walking Rugby at any rugby club which would let me, and things started building up from there by word of mouth. We got people coming from all over and this has steadily increased over the past four years. Now I’ve got 36 players on my books.’
Walking rugby is a slower, non-contact version of rugby, aimed at adults who are looking to increase their levels of physical activity and get involved in a team sport, and it’s suitable for people of all ages and abilities. The sessions aim to give rugby playing opportunities to women and men of 50 years or over who may have never played rugby before, those who previously played and can’t play anymore, and those who want to re-engage with rugby at a slower pace.‘There’s no contact whatsoever (well sometimes there is but there’s not supposed to be) and obviously it’s walking – the majority of us couldn’t run even if we wanted to!’ George laughs.
‘The majority of us are over 65, all the way up to 77. We’ve got one member who’s 59 and he’s the young one. Our sessions are through the day so all of our members are retired. We start by doing some warm up exercises, throw the ball around a bit, and then we always end up by playing rugby. It depends how many people turn up for seven-a-side, or we break up into four-a-side, just so everybody has the chance to get the ball in their hands. And while there’s not many walking rugby teams in the North East, we do still play regular matches against teams from West Hartlepool, Acklam, Kendal and Greenock.’
The benefits of walking rugby are both mental and physical. ‘Sessions are a great way to increase your social activity and make friends with like-minded people,’ says George. ‘We were part of a pilot study, led by Sport Works, to assess the value of embedding health and wellbeing into community life. They came to see what we were doing and asked our players questions like “why are you here?” I was surprised at the responses. A lot of members said “we wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the rugby, but mental health-wise I feel completely different since coming here, it’s opened my world up again”. They said that mentally, as well as physically, they feel much better than they did before they came.’
Blaydon Racers Walking Rugby Club is more about taking part than winning titles, and they welcome all abilities. ‘We take anybody and everybody,’ says George. ‘Whether you’re an ex-player (we’ve got two guys that played for Gosforth when they won the John Player Cup) or you’ve never touched a rugby ball in your life, everyone is welcome. Age is just a number – my oldest guy was 82 years old and he played for two years. Fitness isn’t an issue either, in fact the majority of the team has either got a new hip, new knee, pacemaker, stents, or has got or has had cancer.
‘We never say “you must come every week, stay this length of time, or take part for the whole hour and a half”. If they want to play for five minutes then come off and have a rest they can do so. If they’re absolutely knackered and have had enough, they can go away home and we’ll just say see you next week. Some people come here and don’t play at all. They just come to be in the environment. We’ll always go back to the club for a cup of coffee and put the world to rights. So there is no pressure on anybody and that’s what makes it work!’
For George, walking rugby has given him a new lease of life. ‘It’s taken me back to what I was used to,’ he explains. ‘I played rugby for 30-odd years and I loved every minute of it. Now I’m back talking and playing with like-minded people, bringing new players on and seeing how much they get out of it, it’s great. My wife said it was like putting an injection in me when I started again; it perked me up, I had a goal, and really got my purpose back. There’s nothing like getting together with the guys, throwing a ball around again. It’s absolutely tremendous.’