Playing in the Community Integrated Care Learning Disability Super League has provided Declan Jenkinson with experiences he never thought possible.
Lifelong Leeds Rhinos fan Declan, who has autism, admits he was nervous about giving the sport a try when he was first invited to join the club’s newly formed LDSL team. This specially developed format of rugby league gives people the chance to play an adapted non-competitive version of the game for the clubs that they love and access a range of innovative programs and support from the national social care charity to impact their lives off the field too.
Encouraged to attend training by a Community Integrated Care member of staff in 2018, Declan quickly began to flourish in his new environment, so much so that he was given a leadership role in the side. Declan has also accessed a wide range of opportunities and support through Community Integrated Care’s Inclusive Volunteering programme, which is run in partnership with Sport England, to build his confidence off the field.
This included being part of the charity’s Media Club, where he gained valuable experiences in meaningful media roles at the Rugby League World Cup 2021, including the Tournament’s launch event in Manchester.
All of this has brought tremendous pride to Declan’s family. He explained: “I was asked to complete a form, and when I got that confirmation from Leeds Rhinos Foundation that I could join the team, I was so happy! I messaged my mum straight away. It was a shock to her that her own son was now a Leeds Rhinos LDSL player. To this day she tells everybody – all her friends and our family.
“At one of the LDSL playing festivals hosted by Warrington Wolves, I remember one of my team-mates passed the ball to me. St Helens players were strong defensively, so I gave my best impression of an ‘NFL player’ and leapfrogged over their arms to score my best try ever – while face-planting into the mud.
“After that I was asked to be the co-captain of the team, which gave me more leadership responsibilities within the team. I was nervous at first, because I was only trying to give it a go – I had never played rugby at high school, as it was always football.
“This was a nod to the commitment I show every week, helping others to play and enjoy the game like me.”
Playing in the team has provided many life-changing experiences for Declan and his Rhinos team-mates. Asked to pick a stand-out memory so far, he responded: “It was leading my team out at Magic Weekend at St James’ Park last year, with the crowd cheering us on.
“In the game I scored a full length try, and I could see people shouting my name in the stand. I noticed it was the Leeds Rhinos Women’s team cheering me, who I had met and interviewed as a Media Club volunteer at the Women’s Super League Grand Final!
Playing for the Rhinos’ LDSL team has allowed Declan to follow in the footsteps of one of his heroes. He said: “Playing for Leeds Rhinos is a real honour. I’ve been a massive supporter since I was little.
“I particularly enjoyed watching Rob Burrow, who became my inspiration. I’ll always remember him scoring that try at Old Trafford in a Grand Final. He was the number seven of Leeds Rhinos and now I’m the number seven too.”
Joining the team has also impacted on Declan’s girlfriend Jenny’s life, as she has fulfilled a number of off-field media roles to support both him and the team. Declan added: “When Jenny got involved it was brilliant, showing what this sport is all about. Everyone has a role to play.
“She’s been part of interviews with Radio Leeds, BBC Sport and was even interviewed on Radio 4’s Women’s Hour, alongside England players Emily Rudge and Jodie Cunningham, who she’s built friendships with. Jenny is a big part of my life.
“If you want to play in the LDSL, attend as a spectator or get involved in volunteering – I would say, just give it a go. There are so many opportunities that all the teams in the league, and Community Integrated Care can support you with. It’s an amazing charity that support people like me to live their best lives possible.