Learning Disability Super League: The brotherly love behind rugby league's newest game

Brothers Craig and Oliver Thomason together as children and in later life
Brothers Craig and Oliver Thomason have shared a life-long passion for sport, be it supporting football club Manchester United or Warrington Wolves in Super League

He is the little brother who inspired a big idea.

Oliver Thomason grew up a Warrington fan, loved the game but had no opportunity to play. Having Down's syndrome had for too long denied him that pleasure.

That was until his brother Craig decided to invent a whole new sport. And so, learning disability rugby league was born.

"Between playing at school to now there was a big gap," said 27-year-old Oliver.

"When I was young, all I wanted was to be on a team, a rugby team so that I could score, pass and do what I'm going to do. Now I'm that person.

"I'm passing good, I get the crowd following us. I can see what I have achieved from when I was young to now.

"Craig is more than a brother, he's my mate and my coach. I love him to pieces."

Craig with his brother Oliver when they were children
Craig and Oliver played together as youngsters and now work together at the Warrington Wolves Foundation

As youngsters they scrapped. Hitting each other with big tackles in backyard games of rugby league was the norm.

Despite a four-year age difference, they were also part of the same football side, with Oliver being the mascot. Most importantly, however, is that he was part of the team whenever they trained.

It was seeing his younger brother welcomed onto the pitch by coaches and into the side by team-mates two decades ago that left a life-long impression on Craig.

"Looking back on those football days and Oliver being there and involved has probably shaped why I'm doing what I'm doing now," Craig told BBC Sport.

"For the 90s it was really forward-thinking. For my team-mates, it was second nature having Oliver join in.

"There is very little of my life that I can remember before Oliver, but I can remember my mum and dad first coming in and telling me about Oliver and saying how he was going to be a little different than us but that he would just need a bit of extra time to learn things.

"I just thought, 'OK'. This is Oliver and this is what he's like. He does need a little time, but get him involved."

Oliver Thomason
Oliver Thomason says scoring tries puts the biggest smile on his face

When, at 17, Craig stopped playing football, so did Oliver.

However, trips to watch Super League giants Warrington with family continued. Their shared passion for sport remained undiminished.

Craig could see that for Oliver, taking his place in the stands was as good as it was ever likely to get.

However, that was not good enough for him.

"Having aspirations to play for Warrington Wolves is always there when you are me," Craig said.

"But it was never there for Oliver and you are left thinking 'that's not fair'. It's not fair that he didn't have the realistic aspiration to pull on a Warrington shirt to represent his home town, his club.

"There was nothing I could do, but then I was lucky enough to be in a position where I could change that, so I did."

At his desk at the Halliwell Jones Stadium, where Craig works as disability development manager at the Warrington Wolves Foundation, the idea of learning disability rugby league "was thrown around the room".

Former England international Shaun Briscoe helped "brainstorm" how the game would be played and what rules to play by.

Finding players was not hard. Oliver and others were there ready to go, but finding someone to play against proved a little more difficult.

And so they started with a game against Wolves' first team - a side that included former Australia international and New South Wales State of Origin star Kurt Gidley and ex-England forward Ben Westwood.

"There were the two of them and I thought 'right, I'm going to get you'," Oliver grins as he recalls the day he took on two club greats. "But I didn't get close because they were too fast."

Oliver is proud to think of himself as a role model and he takes that title seriously as both a player and someone that works for the Wolves Foundation as a volunteer. Each week he helps deliver rugby league sessions at a youth club and he is a learning disability coach in a local school.

At Sunday's Super League awards, Oliver collected the Foundation of the Year prize on behalf of the Wolves Foundation.

'Super League superstars'

Wakefield were the first club from outside Warrington to answer the call for a game, and so Craig and his team shared the rules they drew up, explaining how the non-contact game is played.

That first match at the Halliwell Jones Stadium captured the imagination of a number of influential people in both Super League and the social care sector, who came together to form the "ground-breaking" Community Integrated Care Super League.

St Helens and Widnes, two clubs that have worked with social care charity Community Integrated Care and held rugby league-based accessible sports sessions for people with learning disabilities for a number of years, were among the first to sign up to the 12-team programme this year.

At Anfield, the iconic 54,000-seat home of Liverpool Football Club, on Magic Weekend, Super League's showcase event, the competition was officially launched with about 160 players taking part.

Having men, women, boys and girls realise their dreams, tacking issues around social isolation and getting those with learning disabilities more active were all things Craig knew the sport could achieve.

But he was stunned by how they were embraced by the public.

"It was when I was running the team off the pitch at Anfield that I noticed a surge in the crowd as people ran to the bottom to high five players as they came off, taking selfies with them," Craig said. "Right there, they were Super League superstars.

"And on the other side Oliver had the crowd giving him a standing ovation. The best moment that weekend wasn't any game itself, it was how the community got behind it. They could see how powerful it is."

'Living the fullest life possible'

Team picture
While about 160 people took part in the Learning Disability Super League launch at Magic Weekend, hundreds more have been involved in training sessions and other match weekends this year

Trying to "inform society" and "tackle stigmas and prejudices" are among the many reasons that Community Integrated Care helped establish the competition.

People with learning disabilities have been found, on average, to die 15 to 20 years younger than the general UK population.

"There is something so meaningful about the level of engagement people have had around this sport that it becomes a stepping stone to a lot of other things," said Garry Leach, a director at Community Integrated Care.

"At Magic Weekend you could see a confidence in them that I don't think we see in day-to-day stuff. No matter how good we get at delivering support you don't see confidence grow so quickly and so easily.

"And that is not just because they are confident about one thing, it's core to that individual that they suddenly feel much more capable of taking things on in the world. That is often the biggest barrier for people with a learning disability, how do I face a world that is very complicated?"

Having developed a range of inclusion programmes with professional clubs over the past four seasons, Community Integrated Care has gone on to share its expertise nationally by becoming the official social care partner of both Super League and the Rugby Football League.

There are already plans to expand the number of teams in an efforts to reach more people in more cities, while there are hopes that players will become more involved in the clubs they represent by going on volunteer for them.

More accessibility sessions for those who may struggle to play and addition of dementia cafes are also on the agenda for a charity that aims to help people lead "the fullest life possible".

"This shouldn't just be an extra, something we encourage people to do over and above what we are already doing, but something we need to make a core part of our strategy," Leach said.

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