Learning Disability Super League takes centre stage in Newcastle
Craig Thomason's inspiration to create learning disability rugby league came from a desire to give opportunities to play to those who otherwise would not have them. This weekend, they will have the chance to star on one of the sport's biggest stages of all.
The Betfred Super League's Magic Weekend in Newcastle will see the Community Integrated Care Learning Disability Super League take centre stage as well, with matches involving the teams affiliated to 16 professional clubs taking place at half time of the second game of each day.
Being embraced by so many of rugby league's big clubs has helped the rapid growth of LDRL and Thomason, who helped develop the sport during his time as the Warrington Wolves Foundation disability development manager, is in no doubt as to why that is.
"It sounds cheesy, but I think it does give people a platform to live their dreams," Thomason, now partnership and communities manager at Community Integrated Care, told Sky Sports.
"We're going to see nearly 300 people with a learning disability and/or autism play at St James' Park and I'm going to have to find a way of sneaking on the pitch as a referee or putting cones out because it's one of the iconic stadiums in the world.
"To be able to go onto that pitch, with people seeing that - and all the clubs buy into that and give people chances to perform and showcase their skills.
"To be able to pull on the shirt of your hometown, play in these big arenas, be interviewed post-match and do press days and work with Super League to do things like that makes it more than a game of rugby league - that's the appeal of it, I think."
Saturday's festival at St James' Park will see players from Wakefield Trinity, St Helens, Wigan Warriors, Leeds Rhinos, Castleford Tigers, Widnes Vikings, Leigh Centurions, Barrow Raiders and Sheffield Eagles take to the field at half-time of the Super League derby clash between Saints and the Warriors.
Then on Sunday it will be the turn of Salford Red Devils, Warrington, Hull Kingston Rovers, Hull FC, Featherstone Rovers, Newcastle Thunder and Halifax Panthers to take to the field during half-time of the Wolves' showdown with Catalans Dragons.
Thomason, whose brother Oliver plays for Warrington's LDRL team, believes the growth of the learning disability competition plus the wheelchair and physical disability variants of the sport alongside the women's game in the traditional 13-a-side offering is showcasing the best of the code.
"Rugby league prides itself on being a family sport, a community sport, a sport of the people, and I think it's demonstrated by the amount of different people who can have access to playing some sort of rugby league," Thomason said.
"It makes you proud to be from one of those communities and the work all the clubs and their foundations do is unbelievable.
"Rugby league isn't particularly wealthy as a sport, and the work and the dedication from all the different people across all of that is second to none, in my opinion."
The inclusion of the Learning Disability Super League at Magic this year follows on from physical disability rugby league being showcased at the event three years ago when it was staged at Anfield in Liverpool.
Even the pause in playing caused by the Covid-19 pandemic has not slowed the growth of the game and Thomason is excited to think what the future holds for LDRL.
"I think when you throw a pandemic in there, and how since the pandemic started to where we are now the player pool has actually grown shows how strong the idea and the concept is," Thomason said.
"I didn't think we'd be here, so I couldn't tell you where we could be in the next few years.
"But the way it has grown and the lives it has changed already, I just want to see it make people's lives better and people enjoy a sport they love and enjoy participating in it."