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Tom Hamilton
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Tom Hamilton was brought up on the stands of the Recreation Ground and joined ESPN in June 2011 as assistant editor of ESPNscrum.
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Establishing a level playing field
Tom Hamilton
August 27, 2012
Sale Sharks, Canterbury and Level Playing Field unveil the new scheme © Sale Sharks
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Tournaments/Tours: Aviva Premiership
Teams: Sale Sharks

The 2012-13 Aviva Premiership season will be one of new beginnings. Many of the sides have new personnel, coaching staff and kits and for some, a brand spanking new stadium - and there will also be some excited spectators at the Salford City Stadium taking in the action for the first time.

Sale Sharks are one of the clubs to whom all of the above apply. They have a new kit - with Canterbury taking over from Cotton Traders, a new coach in Bryan Redpath, new players with Danny Cipriani and Richie Gray taking the headlines, and a new ground - the Salford City Stadium. And they will also play host to a new initiative that has already proved to be a success in rugby league and football's Premier League.

The 'Canterbury Match Buddies' scheme will be rolled out in time for the new season and will see disabled and non-disabled supporters coming together as companions. The inspiration for the scheme came from a chance phone call just over two years ago to the chair of the 'Level Playing Field' charity Joyce Cook. It was from a case worker at the Wigan Learning Partnership Board, who wanted to increase the opportunities available to his learning disabled clients who were asking to experience everything that non-disabled individuals could and in the same inclusive way - so things like going to see a sporting event or going to the cinema.

It was something that immediately caught the attention of Cook, who has been honoured with an OBE for her services to disabled sports fans, and the 'Match Buddies' scheme was formed. "The Wigan Warriors and Wigan Athletic were both very supportive and to be honest it's probably been more successful in rugby league than in football," Cook told ESPN. "We're not really sure why but we think it's perhaps that in football the supporters have more of an established match day routine. But that's all anecdotal.

"But from Wigan, we found that other clubs started to become interested - like Arsenal. So we now give the club guidance over their own schemes as there are important things that need to be considered to ensure the safety and well-being of individuals when introducing strangers to one another and especially if this includes more vulnerable adults."

It was Canterbury chief executive Chris Stephenson who set the wheels in motion for bringing the scheme to rugby union - he brought together all the parties. "I was quite taken when I met Joyce Cook from Level Playing Field that such a great initiative that she helped pioneer in football had never been taken on by the rugby union community," Stephenson said. "So it was meeting an inspirational person and looking to drive the same cultural values that persuaded Canterbury to get involved."

Following the success of the scheme at Wigan, Stephenson opted for northern neighbours Sale for the programme's first foray into union, which begged the question, why the Sharks? "Two reasons really," Stephenson said. "The initiative was received well by Steve Diamond and the club; it's a new partnership for us. And Salford City Stadium is one of the newest stadiums in rugby and therefore had already started to have accessibility present in the stadium for the disabled fan."

While the programme is forged on charitable grounds, Cook is quick to emphasise that Sale will also potentially reap financial benefits. Making a ground or sport more accessible to those who have struggled to attend in the past may see a new fan base established. For Cook it is more than just "legal and moral issues".

Sale Sharks' chief executive Steve Diamond and new director of rugby Bryan Redpath, Sale Sharks training ground, England, May 31, 2012
It is an exciting new era at Sale with Steve Diamond and Bryan Redpath at the helm © www.markwilliamsonphotography.com
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With the Team GB Wheelchair Rugby Team set to take to the stage in the Paralympics against Japan on September 7, the disability side of the game will receive a huge hike in interest. That may have a knock-on effect to people wanting to take in the XV format with the Premiership season starting around the same time. The 'Match Buddies' scheme could well play a key role in the next couple of seasons and it is primarily down to Cook, Canterbury, Stephenson and 'Level Playing Field' that the game is becoming more accessible. Principles and morality aside, it is something which has the potential to improve individual's lives and that is something to be applauded.

"It breaks barriers down - people are still so worried about spending time with disabled people or saying the wrong thing," Cook said. "I know at Wigan that we've had some amazing successes - buddies that have been going to games for a couple of years now and extending their friendship beyond match days for example going on family holidays together. There's a real honesty that it has made a big difference to both the buddies lives and it's not just the disabled person that's benefitting as both are enjoying the rewards."

For more information, or to enquire about becoming a Match Buddy contact Miranda Walker at: Miranda@levelplayingfield.org.uk or telephone 0789 1658 783

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.
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