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Altona Roosters help James Barling achieve his dream of playing rugby league

James Barling has long dreamt of playing a game of rugby league.

The 28-year-old has high-functioning attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism.

Barling had tried to play for several clubs but, despite his enthusiasm, he didn’t work out.

“It’s been my wish all my life but it’s been hard,” Barling said.

“Because I’ve got ADHD everyone teases me and picks on me because I’m different to everyone else.”

When he turned up earlier this season at the Altona Roosters, based in Melbourne’s west, the rugby league club quickly realized Barling’s wish might be difficult to grant.

“The good thing about it was our coaches and managers were really understanding and just said, ‘You know what? We’ll keep him training,'” club president Jackson Brenchley said.

“He was good for morale. He was really excited, probably over-excited, about some simple things at training but we loved it. We loved having him around.”

Barling attended most training sessions and started running water for the senior team.

“Every week he was begging me for an opportunity to play and it was pretty hard to say no to him,” Brenchley said.

A ‘gentleman’s agreement’ to play

That opportunity arose when opposition club Northern Thunder heard of Barling’s situation and proposed a way of getting him involved in their third-division match.

They struck a “gentleman’s agreement” whereby Barling would play but with his wellbeing and safety in mind.

Altona Roosters coach Efu Koka told the ABC ahead last Saturday’s match Barling would play a “few minutes” in the first half.

“The boys know the guy with the red shorts, probably don’t do a king-hit on him.”

When the most significant moment of Barling’s sporting life arrived, his teammates formed a tunnel for him to run out onto the field.

Barling led the Roosters out for his first game of rugby league.(Supplied.)

Both teams embraced the opportunity as Barling made his first tackle and broke through to score his first try.

He flung his arms out in wild celebration as his teammates hugged and congratulated him.

Barling was elated when he came off the field after scoring three tries.

“I was like [Ryan] Papenhuyzen,” he said.

“You get the ball, run your heart out, it was awesome wasn’t it?

“They tried their hardest [to get me] but I broke the tackles, smack, smack out of the way. My teammates screamed, ‘Don’t stop.’

Barling described his teammates as “family.”

“This is the first club that’s wrapped me with open arms,” ​​he said.

“I’m proud.”

Spreading awareness of autism in community sport

Brenchley, whose cousin has autism, hopes Barling’s participation can help spread greater awareness and understanding of people with autism or other cognitive challenges who want to get involved in community sport.

“It’s really challenging but we need to be better at finding a way to get guys like that involved,” he said.

“I’ve seen firsthand what it’s like for a young man to not feel like he has a place and feel like he’s left out and doesn’t belong.

A man smiles to camera as rugby league players warm up in the background.
Roosters president Jackson Brentley hopes Barling’s story can help raise awareness. (Supplied)

“How do we understand people with a challenge like autism in a better way?”

He said local leagues needed to take more initiative in catering for players of all abilities.

“You see it with Australian rules football in Melbourne, there’s an all-abilities league there,” Brenchley said

“That’s probably the next thing. We’ve seen a massive growth in women’s sport. The next thing really has to be a massive growth in all-abilities sport.”

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