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How we started a Deaf rugby team in South Africa

Rugby has always been a passion of mine. A passion that I never let my hearing loss stand in the way of.

I grew up watching my heroes – the 1995 World Cup Champion Springboks side led by Francois Pienaar, the Sharks teams of the 90’s in the Currie Cup and Super Rugby – and wanting to play the game. There are videos of me as a two-year-old kicking around a lemon-yellow plastic rugby ball (And some poor cat that got used as a kicking tee for the ball – don’t ask). However, it would take some 13 more years before I really got into the game as a participant and set on the road to representing South Africa on a Deaf rugby team.

For me, the story began in 2012. I was playing for a local club that I’d been dedicated to since finishing high school, apart from what essentially became a two-year break owing to my disastrous first-year university adventure and a season-ending finger injury in 2011. 2012, however, saw me healed and raring to go for the season where I would probably be the fittest I have ever been in my life. Training four times a week, with both the senior and u20 squads meant I was probably one of the fittest players in the entire club. I fully expected to see that dedication pay off with selection in one of the top two squads.

Instead, I was lucky to be selected to the 2nd XV bench.

Now, I can’t claim to know exactly why I wasn’t selected. In hindsight, it may have been my size and strength that were deemed greater issues, or there may have been longer-standing players who had really earned their stripes ahead of me. As a 21-year old, however, that wasn’t what registered.

And it turned into something positive.

Working to build a team made up of Deaf players

I suspected that my hearing loss was the reason I wasn’t being given a chance by the coaches. That sentiment festered into frustration and anger, which eventually led to me figuring that there had to be others like me out there – Deaf guys who were playing the game. I was keen to see how they were getting over similar hurdles.

“Deaf guys who were playing the game. I was keen to see how they were getting over similar hurdles.”

I found a link on Google to the www.rugbyrefs.com forums. This is where the father of one of the England Deaf Rugby players had posted a thread on Deaf rugby. I got in contact immediately to see whether there was a team in South Africa.

There wasn’t, but there was somebody working towards putting one together. Wayne Faulkner put me in touch with then-president Tim Stones of the South African Deaf Rugby Union. Around the same time, I was starting to get in touch with the larger Deaf community in South Africa. I did this through connecting with people via the Miss Deaf South Africa page.

Tim and I immediately saw the opportunity available, and I created the South African Deaf Rugby Union Facebook group to try and drum up players and supporters who met the 25dB bilateral loss criteria for international Deaf Rugby.

We also had to jump through a number of administrative hoops to gain official recognition and support in order to get SA Deaf Rugby functioning. Most importantly, we needed to become an affiliate of the South African Rugby Union (SARU) and SASCOC, the main sports body in the country. It was a long process and took a lot of audacity and refusal to hear (ha!) the word “no”.

Successfully starting a team

To cut a long story short, in 2014 we became an affiliate of SARU. The vote from the provinces required to get us to that point was apparently unanimous. We were ready to get going and arrange the first test matches as SA’s official Deaf squad. It took plenty of help and support from family, friends, and valuable allies at the various provincial Rugby unions around the country to get us there.

It was a real blur of emotions when I flew up to Pretoria with Brandin Austin to take part in the trials. I looked back at how far we’d come the night before the first trial game and just reflected on how everything just seemed to have fallen into place at the right time, as though it was meant to be. Everything that had gone “wrong” had actually put us in a better position in the long run. I made it through to the final squad for a two-test series against Wales Deaf in 2015. This was the second most incredible experience of my life (I’m a married man, it’s a no-brainer what number 1 was!)

I got to start in the second test, although from the unfamiliar position of openside flank (I’m normally a wing or scrumhalf). The Welsh were tough, fierce, uncompromising, and one heck of a well-drilled unit. They took us apart and won both matches by large margins, but that isn’t what stuck with us. What did was the fact that we’d pulled off a successful series. We learned what the grade is to make it in international Deaf Rugby. And now we’re working hard to get there in preparation for what comes next.

Read more: 3 tips for playing contact sports with hearing aids

Overcoming the isolation of hearing loss through rugby

Most importantly, however, this has always been bigger than just the rugby. See, that’s just a talent I’ve been blessed to have. While it holds much of my passion, it brought me into contact with others like me. I was no longer alone in this. My brothers on the field taught me to sign, and I’ve come to the fight to create awareness in a place that many of them cannot, as I was raised oral.

“I was no longer alone in this. My brothers on the field taught me to sign, and I’ve come to the fight to create awareness in a place that many of them cannot, as I was raised oral.”

It’s just beginning, but the fact that I have this talent in a place like rugby in South Africa means I have a voice to represent my community. I’ll talk more on some of the issues we face in future posts, and I hope you’ll come along for the ride.

Now, I’m off to keep chasing the odd-shaped ball!

Keep up with Mark on Twitter!

markbarnard
markbarnard
Mark was discovered to have severe hearing loss - total loss in his left ear, severe in the right - at the age of 3, owing to a Cytomegalovirus infection. He grew up as part of the mainstream community, and only started regularly wearing hearing aids at the age of 15, when his hearing loss dropped to profound levels. Rugby has always been a passion of his, and he's never stopped playing since getting his first opportunity in high school. His greatest claim to fame is playing for the South African Deaf Rugby team, a position he also uses to advocate for the Deaf community. However, he is afflicted with an interest in anything and everything, which manifests in limitless Star Wars puns, comments on the things making up the fabric of society, requests for your favourite banana bread recipes, a predilection for painting 28mm sci-fi models and the inability to fit into any of the proverbial descriptive "boxes" society likes to place people in. He currently lives in Durban with his wife, Amy.