The Clapham Feelers touch rugby team 2022

Growth of Touch rugby underpinned by accessibility and inclusivity

Touch Rugby has continued to grow across England due to its core values of accessibility and inclusivity.

It has expanded since its national governing body, the England Touch Association (ETA), was set up in 1995 and now boasts over 100 affiliated clubs and leagues.

The game’s success has been aided by how easy it is to play and ETA’s commitment to ensure Touch remains open to anyone, regardless of their background, gender identity, or socio-economic situation.

ETA Chief Executive Officer Chris Simon, 51, said: “Touch rugby is a product that is more accessible, more inclusive.

“You can play cross-age, cross-gender, any demographics, characteristics or criteria really.

“From our lad who’s 15, to me and my wife who are in our 50s, we can all play on the same field and not feel out of place.

“It’s easy to play, almost like jumpers for goalposts in football, all you need is jumpers for corner flags.”

Simon spoke in excitement of the 18 month period the ETA has to prepare for England hosting the tenth Touch World Cup which will take place in summer 2024. 

He said: “It’s not just about making it more brash but making it better value for money, high quality of satisfaction for the athletes and referees, leaving a publicity profile mark on the venue where we end up being and making it a green, sustainable event as much as we can.”

England was chosen as host by the Federation of International Touch in October following the success of the 2022 European Championships in August at the University of Nottingham. 

At that tournament, England won six of the eight ranking competitions: Mens Open, Womens Open, Womens 27, Mens 30, Womens 35 and Mens 45.

Touch in England has a number of hotspots such as Nottingham, Exeter and south west London. 

One team that embodies the core Touch values of accessibility and inclusivity in south west London is the Clapham Feelers.

They are the UK’s first LGBTQ+ Touch Rugby team and although only started in Clapham Common by six friends, now sees between 40 and 60 players coming together weekly to play, train and meet new people. 

Club founder and chairman Trent Sparks said: “One of the reason’s I wanted to do the club was that I think gay people have a difficult time at P.E.

“Playing in a team sport is really important growing up, its character building, it’s really fun and it’s so nice to fell like you belong, and I feel a lot of gay people have missed out on that.”

The Feelers run two competitive teams and a social side which compete in In2Touch Rugby leagues, tournaments such as Touch My Brum and other competitions hosted by International Gay Rugby. 

The latter’s competitions are supported by the ETA with training and referees and are part of the wider ETA ambitions to make the sport of Touch even more inclusive.

In 2021 the ETA announced its first Transgender, Non-Binary and Gender Diverse Policy which was produced by the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Working Group, in collaboration with Pride In Touch.

Pride In Touch is an organisation co-founded by England Touch internationals Tom Hall and Nick Heath, to promote LGBTQ+ inclusion in the sport.

They run events such as Touch taster sessions and tournaments, notably Pride in Touch Manchester 2022, which was won by Clapham Feelers. 

Sparks, 37, moved to London from Sydney, Australia, seven years ago but couldn’t find a specific Touch club to join so started his own on Facebook.

This past year was the first time the Feelers have received sponsorship money from both the Saxon in Clapham and Blockhead – an energy chewing gum company, giving them the opportunity to grow further in future.  

The Clapham Feelers committee: JJ Bester, Trent Sparks, Frank Dollar and Brandon de Roquefeuil. Image credit: Trent Sparks

He concurred that Touch’s low barriers to entry are a key reason why growth has been so prominent in recent years but also stated how his club shares the key value of inclusivity. 

“Although we’re predominantly gay males and are a LGBTQ+ club, we’re an anything team.

“As long as they’ve got boots, I don’t care who they are as long as they’re a nice person and wanting to come down, then they’re more than welcome to come play,” said Sparks. 

This consistent inclusivity has permeated into all levels of the sport including high performance.

Liam Halpenny played both rugby union and league growing up but fell out of love with them at university due to injury and ruthless competitiveness at Loughborough.

Since moving to Touch he has found its inclusive environment the ideal place to thrive as a player and even earned him a selection for the High-Performance England Men’s Open training squad in October. 

He said: “I found the culture at the club was very supportive and friendly as well and this helped me to open up and be myself.

“I really enjoyed the fact that I would get injured much less playing Touch than playing any form of contact.

“I love the sport now and I feel as though I could happily play it for the rest of my life.”

Prior to this success, Halpenny, 24, struggled to settle at University after attempting other sports which didn’t stick in a performance sense or socially.

He said: “I think initially in my first year of university I was struggling quite a bit due to the fact that I was in a place I didn’t know with people I didn’t know. 

“I think Touch Rugby almost gave me a reason to stay at university if I’m honest.

“I found it very social and inclusive, as we would regularly have socials and nights out together and play social touch.”

Sparks experienced similar experiences when responding to requests from players to join the London-based club.

“​​London can be quite a lonely place with a lot of people so we do find a lot of new players who have moved to London from other countries or parts of the UK and they do find it difficult to meet people, and it can be really difficult as adults to make friends.”, he said.

Touch will only continue to grow due to its core values alongside the ETA’s commitment to growth in player numbers and playing spaces, at all levels of the game. 

Featured image credit: Clapham Feelers

Related Articles