Sports

The city rugby team forged from nothing that’s a lifeline for children

‘More than rugby’.

It’s the sort of phrase that advertising executives would pat themselves on the back for coming up with and subsequently take the rest of the day off.

Most unions or clubs would aspire, maybe even claim, to be ‘more than rugby’.

But if you get yourself down to Trelai Park in the Caerau part of Cardiff on a Sunday morning, you’ll find somewhere that genuinely does meet the ideology.

Caerau Ely RFC’s junior section hasn’t been around all that long. In fact, it was founded in 2018 by Liam Mackay, a man who knows only too well that the power of rugby transcends the sport itself.

Liam had spent time in prison back in 2012, but it was the sport, both through his local club Glamorgan Wanderers and the rugby-based charity School of Hard Knocks, for whom he would later work, that helped him onto the right path. You can read the charity’s remarkable story here.

Now, his job, along with Johanna Lovell and a team of dedicated volunteers, is to provide the vehicle to do the same for a community .

“For a lot of kids, there’s a lack of first chances,” explains Liam.

“There’s little opportunity to play sport at a low cost. Areas like ourselves, Fairwater and Tremorfa have fantastic clubs that have come to light in the last few years.

“Some kids are on their second or third chance. But we’ll be here until the end for them.

“They can have as many chances as they want.”

As you wander around Trelai Park and the several fields currently swarmed by the 200-odd members of the club’s fledgling junior section, it’s hard to comprehend its rapid growth.

“The values of rugby put me on the right path,” says Liam. “So I thought why not start and let these kids take the fruit from the rugby tree, so to speak.

“We started in 2018 with 12 or 13 kids, a pack of cones and two balls for the first session.

“We’ve grown amazingly. The numbers are there in the area. There’s circa 8,000 children in the area and we’re working with 190, from three and four-year-olds right through to the youth team – our first youth team in about 30 years.

“The main reason we started this is to give kids in this area, who are often not thought about, the chance through rugby to create bonds and represent the area.”

“When we started, Liam had a couple of players together,” adds Johanna. “I came down the week after with my two daughters.

“One became a coach at 15 and the other started playing at 8. I did bank accounts and got us started.

“Liam got all the coaches. I did all the stuff in the background, like accounts, safeguarding and registrations. All that kind of stuff. Sponsors for kits, whatever.

“We’re here every Sunday, we try to make some money from selling teas and coffees.

“Basically our aim was for the children to play sport without being priced out of it. That’s the massive thing.

“My one daughter had to go to Pencoed Phoenix to play rugby as there was no team here for her to play in. My other is playing here. She’ll come out of Caerau.

“I didn’t want to take my children out of Caerau to play sport. Everything’s so expensive.

“We just decided to start and make as much as we could free.

“That’s our aim. Free sport.”

And that’s what they’ve delivered. Registration is just £10 and for that, kids get a free T-shirt.

Subs are £5 but the acquisition of a container to sell refreshments from should hopefully cover those costs in the future.

There are also other ways they keep the costs down for families in the area.

Families with more than two children don’t have to pay anything beyond the second child, while the club also works with local foodbanks so no children – or parents for that matter – go without food.

As for the pricey costs of boots, the club’s ‘boot bucket’ initiative is something that has recently been adopted by the Welsh Rugby Union.

Such cost-savers are crucial to local families.

“We’ve got one family with seven children,” explains Johanna. “They pay for the first two and then the rest are free.

“I know the mental health implications. A child does worry about the cost implications on a parent.

“When they come here, there’s no worry. There’s free fruit for all our players. We have boot buckets.

“It’s literally turn up and we’ll do everything we can to get kids playing and make it affordable.”



Johanna Lovell helps players choose boots from the club’s boot bucket

“It’s crazy,” adds Liam. “Inclusion and diversity is usually based around religion and colour.

“But economic diversity and inclusion is massive for these areas.

“Some of the home lives of the children we’re working with would make your eyes water.

“But they come here on a Sunday morning, ready to represent the area and forget their troubles for an hour or so. We feed them. We’ve got the foodbank supporting us.

“No child goes without breakfast or a snack. That goes for the whole family. We’ve got families here today. Children are fed. Mums and dads are fed.”

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Perhaps it’s unsurprising the club has grown as it has. The numbers, as Liam said, are there. As is the need for the club itself.

After all, the area faces its fair share of economic challenges.

“Out of the top seven schools in Wales in terms of free school meals, five are in Ely,” he explains. That means anywhere between 55 and 73 per cent of the pupils having them.

“In a school of 400, you could have nearly 300 having free school meals. That’s not the be all and end all, but it’s an indicator to some of the economic issues in the area.

“There’s a huge amount of school exclusions, for one reason or another. The schools do a fantastic job but we’re trying to provide that little bit more support.”

Caerau Ely aren’t a member club so they don’t receive a core grant. Regardless, that isn’t going to stop them growing and offering that extra support.

“We’re running nine junior teams, a youth and two seniors and we don’t get a core grant.

“We might get £1,000 when others get £8,500. But I’d always rather hours volunteering than cash.

“We don’t need the money, we need people.”



Coach Liam Mackay oversees training
Coach Liam Mackay oversees training

And that’s the crux of it. It’s a junior section as much about the parents as the children.

Rugby isn’t inconsequential, but there’s more to it than just sport. It’s about people, whether that’s children, parents or the community as a whole.

In its short existence, the club has created lifelong friends and provided support to families that stretches far beyond rugby.

Like a lot of places though, it too has been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. Dealing with the sudden drop in contact has been tough.

“We’ve had two families who had suicides last year,” admits Johanna. “You can always come to me or Liam if you’ve got problems with housing or health issues.”

“Unfortunately, some parents, the only reason they get dressed some days and get out of the house is because of this,” adds Liam.

“Everyone says it’s a family environment but we think we’re really welcome to all. There’s talk of support groups for parents.

“It all falls under our motto of ‘more than rugby’ which we’re trying to push to everyone. I couldn’t care less if we didn’t ever win a game.

“As long as the kids and families in the area are getting more than just sport out of it and they can take something, we’re happy enough.”

Because of that, it’s clear that the club has forged something special in the community.

“We’ve got players whose families have nothing,” says Johanna.

“Then we’ve got players who come from Radyr or Barry but they want to be part of this.

“Some families have the means to go elsewhere but they want to be part of our community.”

In a sport where, at the top level, the headlines are dominated by politics and infighting, the sight of Trelai Park on a Sunday morning is a tonic to the soul.

There’s a bigger picture at play and it’s a clear one. It’s simply about smiles on faces, claims Liam.

“It sounds quite fairytale to some, but a child scoring a try at under sevens or eights, may be the first time mum or dad has told them they’re proud of them.

“It might be the first time they’ve bonded over something. We’re trying to provide those opportunities.

“It may sound like a fairytale but you can hear it. You can hear the parents and they’re buzzing to be proud of their children.

“Hopefully, we just provide that vehicle to do that.”

Rightfully, Liam, Johanna and all the other volunteers can also take some pride in what they’ve brought about.

“When you drive around Caerau and you see all these children walking around in their T-shirts,” admits Johanna, “it just gives me goosebumps.”

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