An 11-year-old from Hyde who tackled his autism by playing rugby with Sale Sharks and a Royal Navy veteran from Eccles have been shortlisted for prestigious national Premiership Rugby awards.

Leo Gradwell Spencer, who has high functioning autism, and 59-year-old Ian Rudge will compete with other nominees from around the country for the PLAY Achiever Award and the Breakthru Award at the Premiership Rugby Parliamentary Community Awards in July.

Sale Sharks’ award-winning Community Trust has been nominated for four national accolades in total, with inclusion coach Vicky Irwin (nominated for Community Coach of the Year) and Paula Bradbury, who runs the women and girls section at Winnington Park Rugby Club (shortlisted for Community Volunteer of the Year), also making the final lists.

Leo started playing rugby at his local club in Glossop in 2016 after attending a Sale Sharks Premiership Rugby Academy skills camp last summer and again in Easter 2017.

His mum, Alex Gradwell Spencer, says the work of the club’s Community Trust coaches ‘changed Leo’s life’ and helped him overcome his confidence issues and make friends at school.

She says: “Before rugby Leo was typically autistic. He was self-centred, would not cooperate, couldn’t grasp the concept of teamwork and really struggled to make friends.

“He used to be bullied terribly and was left out of everything at school and because he has high functioning autism, he did understand what was happening but not always why, which made it even more painful as a parent to see.

“It was incredibly challenging, not just for Leo, but for his family too. He was treated as ‘Leo, that autistic child’ – but not anymore. It’s no exaggeration that rugby – and Sale Sharks – has changed his life. Now he’s just Leo – he’s my boy – and it’s wonderful to see his achievements being recognised like this.”

Ian Rudge, 59, served in the Navy for six years between 1974 and 1980 but has struggled to find employment since losing his job as a bus driver in 2009.

He joined the Sharks Forces programme in March 2017, which is run in partnership with the Royal British Legion and aims to use rugby to help military veterans back into work and tackle social isolation. After initially struggling with confidence, Ian was soon running special sessions, passing on his painting ability to fellow recruits.

“The help I’ve received has been phenomenal and my confidence has grown and now my future is looking better because I have a plan,” he said. “Now, I just need to implement it. Thank you to Sharks Forces for the opportunity.”

Sharks coach Paula Bradbury set up the women and girls section at Winnington Park from scratch in 2013 and now helps lead the Cheshire women and girls forum. Vicky Irwin is behind the Community Trust’s highly successful ‘In the Pack’ inclusive rugby programme, which aims to take rugby to people who might not have had the chance to play.

With the Premiership Rugby Parliamentary Community Awards taking place on Tuesday, July 4, a specially-selected panel faced the daunting task of whittling down the nominations to a final three for the prestigious gongs that recognise those who have demonstrated outstanding commitment to the community through their passion, determination and dedication.

Every year hundreds of people up and down the country give their time to help run Premiership Rugby initiatives such as – but not limited to – Aviva Tackling Numbers, HITZ, On The Front Foot, Rugby 4 All, Something To Chew On, Move Like A Pro, and Urban Rugby Squad.

And one of the seven-strong judging panel, Dolly Theis, from the Centre for Social Justice, was amazed at the inspirational stories that were submitted.

“It was absolutely fascinating to read about so many inspiring people and judging the winner for all categories was really tough,” she said. “Working in social justice it was incredible to read about how rugby and sport in general has helped transform people’s lives on and off the field.

“Sport plays a massive part in improving mental health and that was certainly the case when looking at all the candidates. Each one had their own inspiring story and they would all be worthy winners.”

There are four awards up for grabs at the Premiership Rugby Parliamentary Community Awards with a Sale Sharks representative in each of them.

Jonny Acheson, executive director of the Sale Sharks Community Trust, added: “We’re so proud of all four of our nominees. All of the Premiership Rugby clubs do fantastic work in their communities so to have made four shortlists is great credit to the nominees themselves and also to our coaches who work so hard to make a difference in our communities.”