SA deaf rugby on the rise

2015-03-16 15:19

Cape Town - The South African Deaf Rugby Union will prepare a team to compete against Wales and England in Pretoria in June and August.

Many are not aware about the developments of the South African Deaf Rugby Union (SADRU). Just like their able-bodied counterparts, the Springboks, they are aiming to be the best in the world.

And they will get to prove their potential when they tackle the touring Wales and England deaf rugby teams in a few months’ time.

A South African deaf rugby team last competed internationally back in 1995, when they toured New Zealand and beat the hosts 2-1 in a three-match series.

Despite having a history stretching back to 1998, when South Africa was one of five countries to form the International Deaf Rugby Organisation, SADRU only made notable steps to establish itself in 2007, when Tim Stones and Vernon Vice took over the leadership of the organisation.

Together, they updated and compiled the constitution, made contact with various role players within the South African Rugby Union (SARU), including CEO Jurie Roux, and generally laid the administrative groundwork that the union required to exist and gain official recognition.

In March 2014, all 14 provincial unions voted to recognise SADRU as South Africa’s official deaf rugby union. Together with the assistance from the England Deaf Rugby Union, deaf rights activist Braam Jordaan and former Miss Deaf South Africa Shelley Buckle, SADRU managed to grow a player base.

In September 2014, trials were held in Pretoria, which saw 26 players selected to form a national squad for the June and August Tests (recognised by World Rugby). Danie Engelbrecht, Michael Oosthuyzen and Raymond Jonker head up the coaching staff, which is significant as Oosthuyzen and Jonker are both deaf.

Utility back Mark Barnard, who is based in KZN and can play scrumhalf, wing or fullback, is excited to be part of history. Barnard is also an intern teacher at Hillcrest Primary School, where he coaches cricket and rugby, and an ambassador for the TalkSign campaign.

“Wales and England are the most successful deaf squads in world rugby. Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Fiji, the USA and a number of others are also on the rise,” Barnard told

“We’re not big yet, but I feel if South Africa can jump in with a bang, we’ll provide a lot of impetus for other unions as well. The game doesn’t exist without competition!

“A number of players put their hands up in a big way at the trials. Bethuel Kekana, one of our centres, is a magician with ball in hand! Leon Willemans and Reinhard Limbach form our lethal halfback pairing, while the forward pack is a whirlwind of aggression, speed and power. This is impressive as I outsize one of the flanks, and I’m around the same size and weight as Cheslin Kolbe!”

So how does deaf rugby work?

In order to qualify as an official deaf player, you need to have 25 decibels (DB) bilateral hearing loss across the major frequencies. Essentially, this is a moderate to severe hearing loss in one or both ears. A normal conversation takes place at a level of around 60DB, so if you struggle to hear regular conversations, it’s worth getting tested.

SADRU hopes there is enough awareness spread to hearing-impaired players, who are not aware of the fact that their hearing loss can create new rugby opportunities.

Barnard also explained that there are only a few minor law structures in place to accommodate deaf rugby players. The flow of the game remains the same.

“We rely on body language and visual cues when it comes to refereeing calls, but often, all it takes is one player seeing the referee stopping play. The rest pick up on it very quickly and I’ve yet to see play continue longer than a few seconds,” said Barnard.

“The major difference from a refereeing perspective will come in the scrum calls as the official uses hand signals. An open palm below the front row signals crouch. A closed fist signals bind, while a pull of the arm from under the scrum signals engage, and completes the sequence. Most deaf players can lip-read, so communication isn’t a major problem.

“From a player’s perspective, we play on instinct. So switch passes and dummy runs require an innate degree of trust and perception that I don’t think exists at the same level in the hearing game.”

Barnard hopes the upcoming fixtures against Wales and England will set the necessary momentum for South African deaf rugby to grow. Especially with the upcoming Deaf Rugby World Cup in Wales next year, which South Africa will compete in.

“We want to pick up successful results against Wales and England. We also believe we have the potential to win the Deaf Rugby World Cup,” said Barnard.

“Off the field, we want to establish provincial unions, which will help us to grow our player depth and our search for long-term sponsorships.

“We’d also love to have the right to use the Springbok emblem. Currently, we do not fall under the corporate and marketing fields, so we don’t have the right to use it yet.”

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