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By Chris Kennedy

The NRL has partnered with Special Olympics Australia in a move that will help the game broaden its own inclusive sports offerings while providing Special Olympics with access to the reach of the NRL.

The partnership was announced on Thursday at St Lucy’s School in Wahroonga, which specialises in special needs programs for primary and high school students.

“It’s great to partner with Special Olympics Australia to make sure that rugby league truly is the game for all,” NRL acting head of participation, pathways and game development Andrew Every said.

“Working with Special Olympics helps us bring the friendships, teamwork, skills and most importantly the fun of rugby league to people living with disabilities.

“We’re proud today to be able to contribute in a small part to the wonderful work that [school principal] David Raphael and the team here at St Lucy’s do every single day.”

Special Olympics chief executive Pierre Comis said the organisation was looking to help sporting bodies around the country upskill their workforces to help deliver inclusivity programs such as the one at St Lucy’s.

“We want to really give them the expertise and confidence they need to run programs in a way that gives students with intellectual disabilities more of an opportunity to experience sports that they may not otherwise be able to,” Comis told NRL.com.

“The partnership with the NRL is a critically important one for us because of the reach the NRL has, because of how many kids love the chance to play rugby league and NRL touch in particular.

“And so for us, being able to co-deliver programs in schools and being able to train the development officer network around the country is a way for us to contribute to that inclusive sport outcome in partnership with the NRL.”

Parramatta Eels NRLW player Kennedy Cherrington was on hand to help run some drills for the students and is no stranger to working with kids through her experience with What Ability and Giant Steps.

“That was great, a very humbling experience,” Cherrington told NRL.com.

“Representation is everything and I’m glad the NRL are jumping on this opportunity. Inclusion is something the NRL prides itself on and it was really nice to be a part of it.

“I’m a support worker as well for What Ability so I’ve been working with them whenever I can, I reach out and they give me a few shifts with some of the kids which I absolutely love. Being a part of this and seeing my two jobs come together, it’s the perfect mix.”

Special Olympics athlete leader Harry Werner has competed at the special Olympics after starting out focusing on basketball in 2007 before adding ten-pin bowling, golf and tennis.

“I’m also an athlete leader [because I wanted] to help,” Werner told NRL.com.

“[The Special Olympics] helped me learn to be independent.”

His message, he said, is “please support us because it helps people like me.”

Werner is also an avid NRL fan, having gone to school at St Augustine’s in Brookvale and nominates recently-crowned Brad Fittler medallist Tom Trbojevic as his favourite Manly player.

While Trbojevic’s list of achievements in 2021 is truly remarkable, Werner’s own proudest moment in competition came in 2014.

“It was the 2014 national games in Melbourne when I won the gold medal in basketball for NSW,” he said.

St Lucy’s principal David Raphael was proud to support the initiative between the NRL and Special Olympics and hopes to build the school’s relationship with NRL clubs in the future.

“The school is all about inclusion and allowing each child to shine depending on their interests,” Raphael said.

“Some are great sportspeople, some are interested in drama, music, the arts. This was a golden opportunity for us.

“For our students, being active and sporting really gives them meaning, helps them regulate and helps them to thrive.

“Because we come from a wide catchment of Sydney – the Northern Beaches, the Central Coast, the Inner West to the airport and of course the North Shore – we don’t have a link to one specific club but we’re looking to link if we can to one club or a couple of clubs.”

Comis said St Lucy’s warm welcome towards rugby league was another reason for the school hosting the announcement.

“St Lucy’s is a special education school and they’ve got a really good relationship with the NRL in this region so we wanted to make sure, symbolically, we picked a school that is a great school for students with intellectual disability but also a school that is quite positive and warm to the sport of rugby league and the NRL,” Comis added.

“We’re going to get some of our ‘Playing For All’ programs here next year then off the back of that, deliver some NRL touch programs.

“It was great to have Kennedy here from the Parramatta Eels and Harry Werner, one of our athlete leaders in NSW, was able to take part and show the appreciation Special Olympics has for this partnership.”