Bush Beat: How South Aussie rugby helps roaring Riley tackle autism’s challenges

by Stu Walmsley

When he was five, Riley Moore was told he would never be part of a team, but now he’s the player every junior coach dreams of.

The Barossa Rams front rower was diagnosed with autism as a small child, and while this has given him more than his fair share of personality quirks, going rogue on the rugby field is definitely not one of them.

“I’m the obedient soldier - that’s the best way to put it - I always listen to my coaches,” says Riley, after a tough 19-7 loss to Burnside in the South Australia under 18s competition this year.

“I’m probably the only one in the team who listens entirely and actually pays attention.”

Riley has truly found his tribe at the Rams, a club based in the Barossa Valley at picturesque Lyndoch, an hour’s drive north-east of Adelaide.

With more than 250 registered juniors and teams in every age group, he has progressed through the Rams’ ranks with many of the same teammates for the past eight seasons, and the under 18s squad is a tight-knit as they come.

“It’s awesome, kind of like a second family,” the 17-year-old says of the club.

“It’s definitely easier to talk to all these people I know than it is to talk to everyone else.”

Riley was part of the under 16s squad which won the club’s first ever junior premiership in 2018, convincingly defeating Onkaparinga 37-5 in the grand final at Onka’s home ground in Adelaide’s south.

The squad’s coach Andrew Smith, who has been involved in the game for 37 years, rates that season’s triumph over many of the traditional heavyweights in South Australian rugby as one of his most proudest moments.

“Riley, in that grand final, he was best on ground,” recalls an emotional Smith.

“There’s an iconic photo of him, after the final siren, standing there pointing to the sky saying; ‘I’ve done it’.

“Then there was a moment when he went over and hugged his older brother (Connor), who had lost a junior grand final at the club, and both of them are just crying.

“As a coach, it was probably the greatest thing I’ve seen in my career - to watch this young kid with autism - it was just so inspirational.

“At one point he stole the ball out of a ruck on our own 22, and the next thing he was busting through tackles and bolted 60 metres up the field.

“But what happened next was probably the most important; they rounded him up, but instead of going to ground, he fought and fought and stayed on his feet until his back rowers got to him in support.

“You watch it on the video, and you can see him thinking; ‘no, I need to stay up, I can’t go to ground’. He knew exactly what he had to do.”

Smith, who will return to his former club Woodville Wasps in 2020 and hopes to become a youth worker on the strength of his experience in junior rugby, believes the supportive environment of a team sport has helped Riley overcome some other significant challenges.

“Unfortunately he has been targeted by opposing teams sometimes (because of his autism),” says the 53-year-old.

“There was an incident against Brighton where one of their players called him a ‘retard’.

“(Brighton coach) Barry Cooper tore strips off their lads, and their captain and the player who did it came into the dressing room after the match and apologised, saying; we’re really sorry, that’s not our way’, which was a big thing.

“Unfortunately Riley does still cop adversity on the field, and I think it’s part jealousy, because he’s  probably the best front rower in his age group in South Australia.

“He’s had to fight through adversity in life, and also on the rugby field, but he doesn’t let it stop him.

“He’ll be the last one to finish running at training, and the first one to go and pack all the kit up, he just wants to keep achieving greater and greater things.”

These on-field incidents are thankfully very rare, according to Riley’s mum Heidi, and she praised the Rams and Rugby Union South Australia (RUSA) for the way they have dealt with such situations.

“We communicated that it wasn’t appropriate, but not in a nasty way, and it made the young people involved aware that kind of behaviour is not OK,” says the 43-year-old.

“RUSA have a really inclusive policy and definitely don’t put up with anything like that, or any bullying at all.”

After moving to north Adelaide from Whyalla, the Moore family have been heavily involved at the Rams since soon after the junior program began in 2008.

“I think we almost doubled the numbers when we arrived, but now it’s going great guns in all age groups,” says Riley’s father Shane (48).

There are Moores everywhere you look on a game day at Lyndoch. Shane and wife Heidi are among the most active volunteers, and Riley’s three brothers Dane (8), Flynn (14) and Connor (19) also run out in the distinctive pink and black strip and help out around the club.

Heidi is also the public relations and media officer, a role she tackles with incredible gusto, shooting images and video of most matches throughout the day and maintaining the club’s strong presence on social media.

“She and Shane are tireless at home games; they’re here from 7am in the morning to who knows when at night - on the barbecue, behind the bar, in the canteen,” says Mark Cooper, who was the club’s president for five years until the end of the 2019 season.

“Heidi does a lot behind the scenes that people don’t necessarily see, she puts the polish on our brand, we’re very blessed to have them.”

People like the Moores are worth their combined weight in gold at any rugby club, but Heidi insists they receive just as much back from the Rams, especially considering Riley’s increasing independence.

“We just love the club,” says Heidi (43).

“It’s like second family for us, our rugby family, that’s exactly what we call it.

“We’ve met some awesome people who give us 110 per cent support, and we want to give back in return.

“The first day we got there we just felt welcome, which is not always the case in things - we just felt so at ease - and so did the boys, Riley in particular.”

Rather than coaxing Riley out of the social isolation which can be an issue for many teenagers on the spectrum, Shane and Heidi almost find themselves managing their son’s growing cult status within South Australian rugby.

“We know many other families with autistic kids, and they really can withdraw into that bubble, but that hasn’t been the case with Riley and rugby is a big part of that,” says Shane.

“He’s been in state squads through juniors, he’s definitely pretty well known by now, and he has this roar when he’s taking a run.

“Some of the other players in the junior age groups are doing it now - it’s starting to catch on.

“It definitely throws a bit of uncertainty into the defenders.”

It’s been another big year for Barossa’s bellowing front rower. Riley was named best forward for the Rams’ under 18s, completed his Certificate II in Building and Construction (Carpentry), is having driving lessons in order to get his Ps and has also found himself a girlfriend.

“She accepts him for who he is, which is exactly what his teammates do,” says Heidi.

“She brings him out of his shell in a different way, pushes him beyond his boundaries sometimes, but in a good way.”

This set of circumstances is very different from the vision the Moores had when Riley was a young boy, struggling with the social and learning barriers related to his condition.

“We were told by doctors that he would never do certain things, and he’s just rocking every milestone a young fella needs to,” says Heidi.

“As parents, we are now feeling that he’ll be OK.

“He’ll have a trade, he’ll be able to work, and hopefully one day he’ll be able to do the things everyone else does - get a house of his own and things like that.

“Because we were told that these things wouldn’t happen, I guess you just expect that he might live with us forever.

“Seeing him achieve…… I just can’t even talk about it, really. It makes my heart melt.”

But Riley isn’t the only Moore kicking goals through rugby. 

After receiving a half scholarship, eldest son Connor graduated from Prince Alfred College in Adelaide this year, and was awarded the inaugural Badman/Mackay Trophy at the Rams for the best homegrown Premier Grade player.

Flynn was a member of the under 14s South Australia squad which took out the inaugural Southern States Championship in Canberra and was part of an under 15s state team which won a their age group at Darwin’s Hottest 7s in November.

Dane is currently more concerned with how many cupcakes he can consume throughout the day at Lyndoch after running out in the frost for the Rams under 10s, but all the boys have developed large friendship networks through the club.

“We were at a birthday party yesterday for one of the girls in the under 13s and there were 150 people there, mostly from rugby,” says Shane, while on his way to work as a Coles store manager at Tea Tree Plaza in north-east Adelaide.

Heidi also works three days a week, and when you factor in the school and rugby commitments of four boys, there isn’t time left for much else.

“I do multi-task well, but I wouldn’t do it unless I wanted to,” she says.

“We have an awesome committee, if someone can’t do something, then another person will step up.

The only rural-based club in South Australia, the Rams began their existence at Roseworthy Agricultural College in 1977 but rebranded and relocated to Lyndoch at the beginning of 2006.

Placing a heavy emphasis on developing juniors in the years since, and stepping up to Premier Grade in 2013, the Rams have given the code increasing traction in the Barossa and northern suburbs of Adelaide, but only have an agreement to stay at their current home until 2021.

The club hopes ongoing negotiations with Barossa Council will ensure its long-term future at a new purpose-built facility in Tanunda, 20 minutes drive north of Lyndoch, but Cooper insists any relocation won’t change their ethos.

“Rugby’s not big in South Australia so we don’t have the luxury of turning people away, not that we would, and we have a real focus on creating an environment where people can enjoy the sport in a family friendly and safe atmosphere where they feel valued and welcome,” he says.

“There’s a lot of effort behind the scenes to make sure we have the right atmosphere, but a lot of it comes naturally, as well.”

This environment accommodates a seasonal vineyard worker from France as much as it does players like Riley, and the Moores are not the only family who see Lyndoch Recreation Park as a home away from home.

“When a family comes to the club, they stay,” says Heidi.

“You don’t always feel so comfortable when you get involved in a new club, but as soon as they come to the Rams, they’re generally stoked to be there.”

Riley is part of a group which has already begun a pre-season training at Lyndoch ahead of the 2020 season and, while he says rugby helps him ‘release some anger, he might also be the only junior in Australia with in-depth knowledge of American swing dance performers from the 1930s.

“When I’ve had him in the car we’re more likely to be talking about Tolstoy or his collection of Glenn Miller Band vinyl LPs than rugby,” says Smith, who will coach against Riley next season in charge of Woodville’s resurrected under 18s.

“He’s just into all this stuff that makes you think; ‘you’re not really 17, you’re actually 70’.

“He was a joy to coach, and I’m going to miss him.”

There might be a bit of extra sting in the contest when the Wasps meet the Rams next season, but it will be all part of another busy club and representative season for the Moores, for whom rugby has become a foundation.

“I have awesome friends in every club, and within RUSA, as well,” says Heidi.

“Flynn was in state rugby this year, so you catch up with the parents, and that’s another little family.

“I would never have thought rugby could do this for us, but it definitely has, it’s a big part of our life and will continue to be for a really long time.”