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The opportunity to play under the bright lights of Queensland Country Bank Stadium last Friday night has left participants of the All Abilities Cup in awe.

And for the youngest players in the Mackay and Townsville teams, who trained for weeks for their moment, the skills they're learning will set them up for life.

Cutters player Ryleigh Little is still beaming after last Friday night's game, says mum Suzi, and hugging mum and dad thanking them for getting him involved.

Such an action would be unheard of from him before getting involved in rugby league.

Ryleigh joined the All Abilities program on a recommendation from Sarina State High School, who sends a busload of local kids to take part in Mackay-based all ages training sessions.

Ryleigh Little and Robert Pethebridge with the shield after Mackay's win
Ryleigh Little and Robert Pethebridge with the shield after Mackay's win

They've been learning the game from a man they know only as "coach Martin" - former Maroons great Martin Bella - in preparations for the moments they've enjoyed in recent weeks.

And it was certainly made to feel more real when Millie Boyle, at the same hotel as Mackay with the NSW women's team, gave the participants a pep talk on arrival, while members of the Panthers NRL did the same. Many of them later watched on before they took to the field and injured Penrith halfback Nathan Cleary happily interacted with them all.

For Ryleigh, who had his birthday the day before, it was the best 14th birthday present he could imagine.

"He's been so excited that not only was he able to play, but he got to watch the Cowboys win with his dad," Ms Little said.

"And we took on the role of carer for a couple of the players who didn't have a carer with them.

"So he got to sit there with his dad and his dad's first time watching Cowboys play live too.

"The whole experience I think he's a bit in awe of it.

"I don't think the smile has left his face, and Ryleigh is not a very touchy-feely kid, but he keeps coming up and hugging us and he's like, 'thank you', just thanking us for being able to do that with him for him.

"He's level two autistic, he's also got sensory processing disorder and anxiety disorder.

"For Ryleigh, his autism presents socially and emotionally. So he never does well in a social situation, especially with lots of people.

"And that's something that's definitely changed with all abilities."

Ryleigh struggled to maintain eye contact and played as an individual when he was first introduced to the program, but now has improved both skills and is the ultimate team player.

"He only had one run with the ball (on Friday), but he was passing on the ball as soon as he got it to someone else or if someone had a run," Ms Little said.

"He was like, 'give it to them' and just that change in him I'd never seen before."

Much of that attitude could be attributed to Martin Bella, who Ms Little said was fantastic treating participants with respect and dignity. 

"A lot of people will treat someone with a disability like a little child or they'll talk at them, not to them, but Marty will talk to them and he holds them accountable for their behaviour," she said.

"He obviously praises their successes, but if they're doing the wrong thing, he will come down to them and he'll make them understand and realise that what they're doing isn't on.

"So they get to learn and grow in that kind of environment where us everyday people, we get that, but our people with disabilities don't normally."

Meghan-Rose Fletcher, 11, was the youngest player in the Townsville team and mum Kristy Weston said she simply loved being around people who "get" her.

QRL Townsville area manager Kerri Ritchie with Megan-Rose on game day
QRL Townsville area manager Kerri Ritchie with Megan-Rose on game day

Meghan-Rose is on the autism spectrum and has been diagnosed with ADHD and severe learning disability.

"There's a lot of different experience levels but at the same time they have a bit of commonality there and they kind of understand each other," she said.

"All the older ones that are in the program, they just absolutely love the younger kids and they encourage them to join in.

"So it gives her that chance to be able to go out there and play and learn to run around and just be her in a lot of ways."

Meghan-Rose's participation is a big deal in itself as she doesn't often get involved in physical activity usually, other than cheering her brother at Centrals.

And last Friday was just as proud for the parents and carers to see them all thriving.

"Everyone was encouraged, lots of yelling out cheering all the kids on regardless of who it was and as a parent, it was just really good to be able to see these kids with the disability out there playing," Ms Weston said.

Acknowledgement of Country

Queensland Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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