A team huddle at an England Deaf rugby match looks a little different. Rather than gathering in a circle, players bind together in the shape of a horseshoe, facing one of two people.
Those with profound hearing issues will face the team interpreter who uses sign language to communicate while others will face Sean Fletcher, one of the architects behind the most significant year in the history of English deaf rugby.
It is almost a year to the day since the side achieved something that’s never been done by any men's English team, in any sport.
A 3-0 series win over their New Zealand counterparts kick-started a landmark year for the England Deaf programme.
The men went on to beat long-time rivals Wales for the first time in February this year while the women’s side were crowned champions at the World Deaf Sevens in Sydney in April.
"I couldn't be more grateful to get this opportunity to represent my country"
“The success that both the men and women have had in the past year has been incredible for us in terms of raising awareness of deaf rugby,” says Fletcher, himself a former partially sighted rugby player.
“We now have more players and volunteers involved with England Deaf than ever before thanks to our achievements on the pitch.”
For 35-year-old women’s vice-captain Steph Hanratty, the chance to play for England came fourteen years after heart surgery cut short her dreams of playing international basketball.
“I had everything mapped out until I visited the doctor when I was 21 and they discovered a hole in my heart,” says Hanratty, who has only had 40% hearing since birth. It was a massive psychological blow and now I feel like I’m making up for lost time.”
Hanratty went along to Bury St Edmunds RUFC to give rugby a go and just two years later was selected for England.
"I couldn't be more grateful to get this opportunity to represent my country and it feels even better second time round.”
Men’s captain Luke Cheyne believes pulling on the white shirt comes with a responsibility to help inspire other deaf or hard of hearing people to give rugby a try.
“Being partially deaf is one of the cards I’ve been dealt, you just learn to take it in your stride. Rugby is a sport where it doesn’t matter what shape or size you are, or what disability you have, you are welcomed and there is a role for you.”
Next up for England Deaf is a training weekend in Suffolk before Christmas as part of their community work, which includes workshops with local schools and clubs to educate them on integrating deaf players.
International fixtures begin in earnest in the New Year against Wales while other international sides including Australia, South Africa and even Ghana are lining up to test themselves against England.
After a remarkable season, Fletcher says the programme is now more ambitious than ever. “The best moments are when a new player finds out about us and realises that they qualify and can represent their country. That’s what we’re trying to achieve here and we’re proud to be spreading the values of this amazing sport.”
England Deaf was founded in 2003 to give deaf and hard of hearing players the chance to represent their country and is one of the projects supported by the RFU to grow the game. Find out more at www.englanddeafrugby.com