Deaf heroes star on the rugby field

Rugby Union’s rules are difficult enough as is, but imagine if an interpreter was needed to translate directions from coaches, referees, and players into sign language. For the forty players on the Australian Deaf Rugby team (ADR), this is their everyday.

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Deaf rugby excels in Australia

Founded in Sydney over 15 years ago by rugby fanatic Mick Conroy, the ADR team is made up completely of players who have a hearing loss of at least 50 decibels (dB) entirely in one ear or across both.

Mick has been team president since the start, when they lost their first match to the New Zealand Deaf Rugby (NZDR) side in 2001.

But that game’s 25-0 final score was still an impressive result for his fledgling Australian team, given that deaf rugby was first formally organised across the Tasman back in 1952.

The team has gone from strength to strength since then – especially in recent times.

Australian Deaf Rugby Club team photo

They won the last Cochlear Cup – the equivalent of the Bledisloe Cup – to become the first Australian men’s team to take a rugby union series trophy off New Zealand in more than a decade. They’re also currently the World Deaf Rugby 7’s title holder.

And just last year, ADR toured Cuba to battle against their national men’s team – which, like many of the ADR’s opponents, was composed of players with no hearing disabilities.

“We were the first national rugby team from a Western nation to play against Cuba since Fidel Castro imposed an embargo on sporting ties with the West,” says ADR treasurer and secretary Graham Leonard, a former rugby player himself.

Hearing loss is their smallest hurdle

Leonard says ADR is entirely reliant upon sponsorships and donations, with the team receiving no financial support from the Australian Rugby Union (ARU).

“Being self-funded, especially for tours, is really hard,” explains ADR captain and flanker Dave Kearsey, who is completely deaf in one ear.

“With funding comes so much opportunity, [but] so many talented people miss out because they can’t afford to go further.”

But some much needed relief is imminent in the form of the AGL Waratahs Grassroots program, which is committed to funding 361 grassroots rugby clubs across New South Wales.

ADR has enthusiastically welcomed the initiative, with the team looking to have its strongest side on tour when it heads to Wales for the Deaf Rugby World Cup in Cardiff next August.

“It’s the pinnacle for us as a team,” Kearsey explains. “There are some really strong teams like Wales, South Africa and England that have signed up already, so we need at least 30 players on hand if we can.”

rugby union game
As Kearsey knows too well, it’s often the big expense of airfares and accommodation that stops the entire team from going on tour.

“We don’t want anyone missing out because of cost,” Kearsey says. “These guys are some of the most amazing, inspirational people I’ve ever met. It means so much for us all to represent our communities and our country, to wear a jumper with the Australian flag on it.

“And if they have to go without money for a long time for that opportunity to go on tour, they will.”

From Indigenous men to military veterans, ADR’s made up of a diverse group of players aged between 18 and 50 and from right across Australia. In fact, it was serving in Somalia where player-coach Dave Hoffman sustained profound hearing loss from artillery fire.

Yet many ADR players can’t secure higher-paying jobs due to their impaired hearing.

deaf rugby australia

Support is essential

As with any rugby team, it’s not just the players that are needed on tour.

“The majority of the side is profoundly deaf,” Kearsey says. “An Auslan [Australian sign language] interpreter is crucial.”

“Having a sign language interpreter with us made everything on tour a lot easier,” explains Ché Williamson, who plays tighthead and loosehead prop. “Just like the strappers, they’re very much a part of the team.”

Kearsey agrees. “Communicating the simple logistics of where you’re meeting on tour can be difficult. If you’re walking down two blocks and then turning right, one bloke keeps walking and you have to run and grab him.”

ADR covered the interpreter costs during the 2015 rugby tour of Samoa and New Zealand, but not all translators can travel pro bono – and they can charge anywhere up to $120 an hour.

This makes the contributions of the tour’s team manager Deb Coulthard, interpreter Adrian Priem, and coach Adrian Priem a critical part of the ADR’s existence.

Interpreting is needed when the guys are on the field as well, when the game can come to a characteristic union standstill while the referee’s decision is translated.

“The refs stand around a lot,” Kearsey laughs.

But Kearsey emphasises the essential fabric of the game remains the same. “That mateship and support of each other is alive and well. Complete strangers doing anything for each other for that 80 minutes of gameplay.

“I live and breathe that.”

Learn how you could support your local rugby club with an AGL Waratahs Energy Plan.