When the opportunity came along to take rugby into prisons, Dragons Rugby picked up the ball and ran with it. Five years later, they’re still running.
The Gwent-based PRO14 team partnered with The Prince’s Trust to deliver the ‘Get Started with Rugby’ (GSWR) at HMP Parc in Bridgend. And so began a real and enduring success story.
The GSWR provision - funded by the Prince’s Trust and taking place once or twice each year - begins with a taster session or interview and then gives participants a week-long sporting and education experience, before a follow-up session afterwards to monitor progress.
Dragons Community Manager Mike Sage said: “The programme is designed to engage, motivate, enthuse and educate participants to work together and develop important health, social & life skills through sport.
“In turn this supports reintegration into society and equips participants with qualities to make a positive contribution within the prison environment. We preach teamwork, leadership, communication, co-operation, health and wellbeing.”
During the courses, participants get the opportunity to learn and practise basic rugby skills and play in modified non-contact games. They can also earn qualifications in Coaching Leadership & Communication, Team Building and First Aid.
The results have been “amazing and inspiring for all involved” according to Sage - including an astonishing retention rate throughout the courses over 96 percent.
He said: “The HMP staff are very welcoming and helpful, and the participants always give everything. We are very proud to witness the impact and see the participants grow in confidence and ability over the week. The feedback we get - from the people who take part right through to the staff and our external partners - is always first-class.
“The individual development of the participants is always a massive positive, but just as importantly we see the ‘breaking down of barriers’ between the inmates and also prison staff, with quality relationships starting to develop along with positive attitudes and teamwork.”
The end of each course is marked by a presentation - a real celebration of the week’s achievements and attended when possible by a Dragons player.
“Each participant is asked to say a few words about the week,” said Sage.
“Without doubt, this is the most inspiring part of the week as they speak from the heart and it is so humbling and rewarding to be able to offer this support and make the impact which will hopefully enhance their contribution to society.”
There are other positive spin-off impacts from the work Dragons have done - Parc for instance has now developed its own touch rugby provision on the back of the courses offered by the Region.
Looking to the future there is more to come according to Sage, who said: “While our contact time has so far been with the senior HMP, we are currently in contact with the YOI team to establish a similar programme for the future.
“We have also developed our own Dragons engagement called ‘Rugby Inspires’ and have delivered it independently in Prescoed and USK HMP.
While the benefits for participants have been clear for all to see, Sage’s team at Dragons - who are truly embedded into the local community - are also always queueing up to take part.
“Staffing the GSWR provision is always straightforward as the staff always enjoy the experience and find it highly rewarding and inspiring. We are very proud of the impact we have in this space and always promote and celebrate its success to the wider community.”
Sage’s team build a great rapport with participants, and while they are often downcast when each course ends, they look forward to getting the opportunity to go back.
“It is great to meet up with the lads on the post-course follow-up session and it’s always nice to see some of the lads from previous courses when we visit.”
Sage says the work Dragons do in prisons would not be possible without the support of a number of partners and supporters.
“I must acknowledge a number of people, including the staff at HMP Parc, the staff of the Prince’s Trust, my team here at Dragons and the Dragons players who make their time available.
“Externally we get great support and help from the Sports Department at Newport LIVE, the WRU Coaching Team: District A and EMW & Training Limited.”
The Community team at Dragons - small but incredibly hardworking - is a real mainstay of the local area and its work in prisons is not the only example where it gives back to people. This has never been more evident than during the current COVID-19 crisis.
The Regions Rodney Parade stadium is being used as a COVID-19 testing centre for NHS and frontline workers, while the Dragons Deliver programme is supporting vulnerable members of the community by collecting and delivering essentials and prescriptions.
Other ongoing initiatives include Walking Rugby, Mixed Ability Rugby and a weekly Sporting Memories session at Rodney Parade for over-50s with dementia, depression or loneliness.
As well as a wealth of other initiatives, the Dragons Community team supports multiple inclusion provisions from deaf rugby, disability rugby, wheelchair rugby, tickets for troops, veterans, BAME groups, refugees and more.
The club is also proud to have its own homeless rugby team - Dragons Phoenix - and are looking forward to hosting the first Homeless International Cup to be held in Wales.
The event - which will be rearranged and held once restrictions due to COVID-19 are lifted - will be held at Rodney Parade over a morning and afternoon.
Dragons are hopeful the 2020 version will be the biggest occasion the event has seen, and are planning an action-packed programme with Nandos, Lockerstash and Homeless Rugby UK all lending their support.