From being bullied for daring to dream about playing for St Helens, to scoring a hat-trick for the club on his Super League debut – Josh Taylor has proved to be one very determined teenager.
Taylor is a hard-running, energetic, home-grown Saints rookie who wears the red and white ‘V’ on his chest with the sort of pride that only a lifelong fan of the club can appreciate.
The 18-year-old is also autistic.
But his condition will not stop him from achieving his life’s ambition, as he is one of the inaugural members of Saints’ learning disability rugby league team, which plays in the Community Integrated Care Super League.
“At school, I was bullied about rugby,” Taylor said. “I always said I wanted to play for Saints so this is like ‘wow’.
“I’m walking in the footsteps of my heroes for my hometown club.
“This has been in my heart forever and ever. I love the history of this club and I added to that history when I scored the team’s first hat-trick.
“I just love every minute of wearing this shirt.”
That strength of feeling will reach new levels as Taylor and his Saints team-mates line up alongside 11 other sides for Magic Weekend at Anfield, home of Liverpool – the football club he grew up supporting.
Changing lives through rugby league
These days, Taylor wears Saints’ colours most of the time, as he also works for the club’s community development foundation.
It is that grassroots department that has expanded on the field in recent years, with Saints’ women’s team and physical disability sides all under their umbrella.
Their latest move into the “ground-breaking” learning disability Super League came as a natural step for a club that has worked with the competition’s title sponsor, social care charity Community Integrated Care, for a number of years, partnering up to deliver a weekly accessibility session at their stadium.
For some, those sessions have helped improve their mental wellbeing. Others have lost weight and improved their physical fitness. Friendships have been forged.
One, John Paul ‘JP’ Derbyshire, has even gone on to play for Saints’ learning disability Super League side.
The impact, long-serving carer Justine Hughes says, has been “life-changing”.
Social isolation and bullying are among a number of reasons why people with learning disabilities have been found, on average, to die 15-20 years younger than the general UK population.
“St Helens is not a huge town, but Saints are a huge rugby team,” Hughes said.
“Everybody knows who Saints are, everybody supports or has somebody they know who supports the club, so to come to the stadium every week with the guys is something huge.
“They are being included, and that’s a massive thing.”
‘Living and breathing rugby league’
St Helens’ England international stand-off Faye Gaskin is an ambassador for the league, one of the coaches at Saints and is a teacher who is doing a masters degree in special educational needs.
She also knows what it is like not to be embraced by a sport that long billed itself as “a man’s game”.
“Growing up, I wanted to just play rugby league professionally, but I was the wrong gender. I’m female and there was no pathway at the time,” said Gaskin, who is also involved in research into barriers to participation.
“Now with the growth of the women’s game, it’s huge and you can play for your home town, your club. The same goes for those in LDRL, like Josh who breathe rugby league.
“These are guys who live for the game, whose family have been part of it, are season ticket holders, and now they can actually say they are a Super League player for St Helens. That is such a proud thing to say.
“Some of these lads would have been excluded from sport, or excluded because of their disability. With the Community Integrated Care Super League, they have come down and got involved.
“Finally, we have an inclusive sport.”
St Helens are one of nine of Britain’s top-flight clubs to enter a side into the 12-team competition.
‘Playing with heart and desire’
Leeds Rhinos have been among the pioneers of learning disability rugby league, hosting an annual tag festival for a number of years.
Tony Walsh has been involved with rugby league as a player, fan and coach for almost 40 years.
He is also a carer.
He says the new competition will help a section of the community that is “invisible to the wider public”.
“Everyone has an ability, it doesn’t matter if you are the fastest, the strongest or the toughest. It is about heart and about what you want to do and your desire,” he said.
“The people we support have so much passion and desire to do things, they have just never really had the opportunity to do that.”
|The 12 founder clubs|
|Wigan Warriors||Leeds Rhinos|
|St Helens||Castleford Tigers|
|Hull KR||Huddersfield Giants|
|Salford Red Devils||Warrington Wolves|
|Wakefield Trinity||Widnes Vikings (from Championship)|
|York City Knights (from Championship)||Newcastle Thunder (from League One)|
Matches have already taken place, but it is at Anfield – the famous home of football club Liverpool – on Magic Weekend that the new competition hopes to grab wider attention as they aim to draw a world-record crowd for a learning disability event.
Mark Adams, chief executive of Community Integrated Care, says raising awareness about the needs in social care is another major reason the charity has invested in rugby league.
“To put tens of thousands of pounds into a sporting activity wrestles with your conscience, but if we are going to take social care to where it needs to be in the next five, 10 or 15 years, this is the one of the things we need to do,” Adams said.
“As a charity that turns over £120m a year and looks after 3,500 people, you would think we were being supported aggressively by families wanting to help the charity with donations, legacies and grants and things.
“But the charity gets 0.01% of its revenue from charitable donations and part of that is because the charity isn’t known, we go quietly about our job and we are not seen by the public.
“As a charity we need to make an impact, and rugby league is all about the big hits.”
|Dacia Magic Weekend|
|Venue: Anfield, Liverpool Date: Saturday, 25 May & Sunday, 26 May Kick-off: Saturday from 14:00 BST and Sunday from 13:00 BST Coverage: BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra, BBC local radio and BBC Sport website|