Q&A with Allan Corless, BRFC Director of Special Projects
Q: You are the founder of the new Blackthorn Inclusive Rugby Club. How did you get the idea for it?
A: Playing rugby for so many years and coaching my son and other special needs athletes in sports so many years, I started thinking about it a few years ago. I saw the amount of kids that were moving away from soccer and not doing anything in the fall. A group started a flag football program, but I don’t know how successful that was. I always wanted to give it a try, but I got sidetracked by the start-up of our U13 and U15 teams and when we decided this fall not to run the U13 or U15 teams, due to conflicts with other fall sports, I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to give this a try to see if it would catch on.
Q: What was the biggest challenge you faced in starting up this rugby team?
A. After a couple of phone calls and emails, I realized the insurance was the number one challenge. I have been on the board at the Miracle League for more than 10 years and we have a couple other sports under our umbrella besides baseball. But when our president approached our insurance company to inquire about insuring a rugby team they were not receptive to providing the insurance. Even though I stated it was to be non-contact, they still would not insure the team. So, I went to USA rugby and I talked to them about it. They initially were puzzled because they didn’t have any program similar to it. They did have adult touch rugby, so we marketed the inclusive team as an over-18, adult non-contact team.
Q: What has been the response this season from players and parents?
A: Everything I’ve heard from the parents and players has been positive. We marketed this as a co-ed sport, and did have one girl from the Reading area that registered. Her nephew plays for the Berks high school team, and through Bill Pepper they got in contact with me. She hasn’t been able to get out due to the two-hour drive, and 5 PM start time on Mondays is pretty tough to make. Hopefully through the success of our program, maybe Berks and other areas may be able to get something going and provide the special needs athletes in their areas a chance to play rugby.
Q: What changes or growth have you seen in the players?
A: At first it was tough getting them to run with the ball after catching a pass from a teammate. But now, 8 weeks into it, there has been pretty good development and understanding that you must be behind the player with the ball to get a pass. They are still struggling a little bit with the offsides rules. It’s kind of tough with non-contact Touch rugby, because you are not using the same ruck and maul rules as with Full Contact rugby. It’s been a little bit of a challenge, but the concept has also been a challenge with our typical U13 and U15 kids.
Q: How has the experience of starting the Inclusive club changed you?
A: I don’t know that it’s really changed me, because I’ve been exposed to coaching athletes with special needs for over 20 years. It’s just another sport to me. I am thrilled that there has been such support by my club, Blackthorn, as far as the coaching, volunteering, and financial support. I think it has probably done more for the guys who have come out to help. I am thrilled that I can say that now all 3 of my kids are rugby players. I think the Inclusive team is cool, but I was surprised that I could not find another team similar to it anywhere in the United States. There are numerous teams overseas that are providing inclusive and mixed ability programs in rugby, and I have corresponded with some of them through Facebook. I hope to go over to Ireland in June of 2020, there is a Mixed Ability Rugby World cup and I’d like to see how they are running their teams there. The mixed ability rugby overseas is full contact, which I hope to introduce in the Spring to our group.
Q: Have you come up with a name yet for the Inclusive team?
A: I haven’t yet, no. I like the name Blackthorn Barbarians. The Barbarians is a select team of players from around the world that are invited to play a few matches towards the end of the competitive rugby season. If you can go to the definition of barbarians, you could come away with a different feeling of the meaning. I did a little research on the Barbarian rugby team and found that their motto was “Rugby Football is a game for gentlemen in all classes, but for no bad sportsman in any class”. In “all classes”. I think we could go with that. But I do want to give the team a nickname and a separate identity.
Q: The Inclusive club is set to play an exhibition game at the BRFC Marshall K. Sturm Day on Saturday, 23 November. What should we expect to see in the match?
A: What we are going to do is very similar to what we did at our last practice. We will split the players up evenly and take all the coaches that were involved and split them up evenly. We will play 12 on a side, 3-man scrums, and we are going to play two 30-minute halves. Both teams will be outfitted with game jerseys from our men’s and high school programs. It will continue to be non-contact, where once a player is grabbed, the referee will call “tackle”. The ball carrier will go to the ground and present the ball to their team's side, and one of their teammates will come and restart the play. It’s similar to the type of touch rugby that the men’s club would play, only with our group, we are getting them used to going to the ground and presenting the ball back to their side. This is one of the first steps in progressing to a full contact rugby match.
Q: You were awarded the Leonard C Ferguson Youth Advocate Award this month at the College Settlement Camp Acorn to Oaks gala. You had quite a support group there, including your wife Joanne and your three kids and upwards of 17 BRFC players and alumni. It must’ve been a special night for you.
A: That award is a great honor, Leonard Ferguson is a legend around CSC. He’s passed away now, but he’s part of the history there and to be mentioned in the same sentence with him was a tremendous honor. I got started there about 15 years ago on my first committee, through Marshall. Almost immediately you could see how dedicated the people who work there are, and how passionate they are about the camp. You want to bend over backwards to make their job easier and give them what they need to do their jobs. Helping out at the camp is probably one of the easiest things I’ve ever done because the people you are doing it for are so worthy of it. I got on the Board of Trustees about 6 or 7 years ago, and you could not even imagine how dedicated to the camp these people were. They are setting the bar so high, and I’m in there as a new board member, what do you have to do to just keep pace with these people? The stuff I do there, I enjoy it. Any time they ask me for something where I need to get Blackthorn involved, the club always comes out and supports it without blinking an eye. I may be the guy out front, but I am certainly not going it alone. And so you know, I did have a speech prepared. The time constraints however did not allow for the award winners to do any talking. I was fine with that!
Q: Did you ever give that speech?
A: I gave it at the bar afterwards.
Q: You have a leadership position at work, you’re on the CSC board of directors, BRFC director of special projects, Miracle League board of directors, and there’s the AJ Foundation. You seem busy. How do you balance it all?
A: All those things I’m involved in, I enjoy it. I enjoy the people I work with, and the kids, and all my friends with special needs.
Q: But how do you balance it all? There’s only so many hours in the day.
A: It keeps me busy. Sometimes, if I’m home and don’t have anything to do, or if I don’t have a meeting, I’ll just go home after work, sit down on the recliner and I watch TV. Or I’ll take a nap or I’ll work out. With the Board position at CSC, and with the property committee, we have a couple of meetings a month, and we provide guidance. It’s not physical work. I do get a lot out of it. Everyone that volunteers there gets a lot out of it.
Q: We recently established a Blackthorn Song Night one night a month, and you have become very much involved. Do you want to see more singing from BRFC?
A: Coming up through the ranks playing rugby, I never played with a club where we regularly sang at the post-match party. I think it’s a tradition that has died out, and it would be great if we resurrect it, even a little bit. It is a great social thing, and it’s fun. I am not a singer, I couldn’t tell you the words to one song, and that is why I got these song books made up. It is great that we are getting some old boys out to guide the younger, active players, and we should take pride in singing and become a team that sings again.
Q: We have the BRFC 50th anniversary coming up in 2021. What is your vision for an anniversary tour?
A: When I first started with Blackthorn, we would only go down to Florida to play in a tournament. But the club didn’t really do any touring overseas. I had been on a couple tours before I started with Blackthorn. As a rugby player, you want to play on a good team, and win championships. But there is nothing like going on a tour to another country, to intermingle with another club, get a couple of games in, and spend time with the other club. It’s a great fraternity, and it’s another thing that many teams don’t do. Blackthorn is due for a tour. The last tour we went on was 2015, and by 2021 we are going to be past due. I’d like to get back up to Armagh, which is where the club went on our first tour in 1996 for our club’s 25th anniversary. So, it would be neat to get back there for our 50th anniversary.
Q: Any final thoughts?
A: Yeah, let me just add one thing. I want to make it clear that the Inclusive club is not an “Allan did this all by himself” thing. I’ve started a list, a running list, of all the people and the organizations that have helped since day one.
Q: I’ll attach it at the end.
A: OK thanks.
Thanks to all those that made this 1st season for Blackthorn Inclusive Rugby possible:
Coaches and volunteers:
Mary Clare Rae
Field usage: Bob House & Nancy Opalka from (Miracle League of Northampton Township), and Jill DeLucia and Cynthia Langan (CRUSA)
Sponsors: Jon Arnold (Quality Commercial Flooring), Tony Fletcher (Fletcher Custom Painting), Jim Perri (Widener Construction)
Major donors: Mike Darragh (Blackthorn Old Boy), Pat Luddy (Blackthorn Old Boy)
Marketing: Rodd Whitney (Cause Design)
Wrist Bands: MaryClare Rae
Practice Jerseys and shorts: Jason Sturm & family
Practice balls: Brian Vizard and the US Rugby Foundation
Numerous Song book and bracelet donors
Numerous end-of-year Jersey donations