To most people, rugby is all about tackling the opponent, not tackling mental health issues, however, that is exactly what Australian Stockman Rugby is setting out to do.

“In a nut shell Stockman Rugby is a program for remote, rural and regional rugby players to have an athletic and personal development opportunity in a character building environment,” says founder Shaun Mackin. “Sport is simply a language most young people from the country speak and understand. It is a powerful vehicle to positively impact lives.”

Stockman Rugby delivers a mental health and wellbeing program alongside sport development training to youth in regional and remote areas. The initiative was started by brothers Shaun and Peter Mackin and their close friend, Theresa Acton. After seeing how rugby connected the community in their own town, the trio conceived the idea for a country specific rugby program, using it as a vehicle to deliver mental health support. Founded in 2013 as Queensland Stockman Rugby Union, the group expanded to include members from throughout Australia in 2015.

“While we’re building and developing athletes, [we’re reaching] them with education and awareness around suicide, depression, substance abuse and domestic violence,” said Shaun.

Stockman Rugby focuses on the personal development of the players involved, but Shaun says the mental health component is non-negotiable. It is an opportunity for teenagers in remote communities to explore common issues on toxic masculinity and other men’s issues in a safe and voluntary environment.

Along with touring, Stockman Rugby also conducts domestic clinics involving Classic Wallabies around country areas. “By having these group discussions, we are challenging the stigma of talking about mental health and wellbeing in a safe environment, challenging players’ own behaviour and what their interpretation of what is and is not acceptable.”

The initiative has been supported by sporting legends including Wallabies John Eales, Mark Ella, Michael O’Connor, Chris Roche, Guy Shepherdson, and former NRL coach Murray Hurst.

Though this year Stockman Rugby is touring to New Zealand and Argentina, it is not the group’s first time overseas. Their 2014 trip to Ireland culminated in a documentary narrated by Eales. This year’s team has also toured before, beating the award-winning Papakura Rugby Club and the Auckland Police Rugby Union. For Shaun, however, winning is not the main goal. He hopes squad members will be a natural conduit to help destigmatise mental health issues, facilitating conversation and spreading positive messages and inclusivity.

“The ultimate measure of this tour’s success will be measured in many ways; the upholding of cultural standards, the victories and losses on the field, the development of players, etcetera,” said Shaun.

“One of the ways we tell the group we measure its success is if in the years to come when individuals from this squad experience their ups and downs, peaks and troughs in life, they pick up the phone and ring someone they toured with and … connect on those deeper issues. That would be our ultimate measure; life changing and potentially life saving.”

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