Wheelchair rugby league has been a success in the World Cup. How can it continue to grow?

Aand then there was one. World Cup organizers – and the RFL – must be hugely relieved that at least one English side are on this weekend’s treble World Cup finals project. While few expected the England women to beat New Zealand, let alone Australia, most hoped the men would reach the final, and their thrilling wheelchair team was predicted. to face defending champions France in Friday night’s final at Manchester Central. For the giants of wheelchair rugby league to collide – quite literally – may produce the most exciting and closest contest of the three and a fitting climax to an extraordinary campaign for wheelchair gaming.

Three weeks ago very few people in the UK had seen wheelchair rugby league on TV, let alone in the flesh. Some sports fans didn’t even know such a thing existed. But since opening night at London’s Copper Box Arena, it’s been a gossip topic in water coolers – and trending on social media whenever a game against England was on BBC2. It’s a triumph for a game that offers a unique sporting and social product: inclusion, athleticism and human interest stories. Having an exceptional England team also helps.

by Tom Coyd The squad – although all white men – is an eclectic group, containing players from Kent, Nottinghamshire and the North, alongside players based in France and North Queensland. Coach Coyd is the brother of star player Joe and the son of England water carrier Martin, who was awarded an OBE after driving wheelchair rugby league in the UK. And some team members use wheelchairs every day, others make full use of their limbs.

The progress wheelchair rugby league has made in a fortnight has been phenomenal, but what happens next is up for debate. We can consider this World Cup as a picturesque tournament, where fathers and sons played on the same ground, where a man in his sixties did not look out of place in the best team, where women played men’s side, where a team was competitive despite guys who looked like me: gray, bald and out of shape.

Not only were amateurs playing alongside world-class athletes, some were almost completely new to the sport. This World Cup’s wheelchair tournament was the equivalent of the racing game’s Emerging Nations Tournament in 1995, when new nations emerged with assembled teams containing students, union converts and international stars – and when ‘one Scottish housemate showed up with the line: ‘Hi, I’m Alan Tait, Leeds and Great Britain’, and the other replied: ‘Hi Alan. I’m Stuart McCarthy, Second XV of Canvey Island.

It was lovely but also necessary. You have to start somewhere. At this World Cup, Ireland cobbled together a team despite having only a few wheelchair players. The organizers of the next World Cup in France in 2025 intend to expand the women’s and wheelchair events to 16 teams. That seems unnecessarily hasty given the gigantic array of capabilities already between the eight nations, all of whom have been invited to participate, this time around. A qualification process for another eight-team World Cup would certainly be more beneficial, ensuring that lower-ranked nations are much better prepared. The challenge of developing the sport while maintaining its inclusiveness, its key USP, is an obstacle to the maturation process.

“The diversity of people playing, the inclusive nature, is one of the beauties of the sport,” says Australian wheelchair player James Hill. “It’s relatively green. You look at some countries and regions that have played the sport longer and internationally, like France and England, and it shows on the pitch and behind the scenes. Australia does not yet have the backing or backing of the English. The effort that goes into this team is enormous. We hope this will raise the standards of what should be delivered. But going personally from playing in front of 50 people – and that’s a big step for us – to 3,000 is huge.

Slender, strong and agile, Hill looks – like England stars Coyd, new international player of the year Seb Bechara, former Golden Boot winner Jack Brown, Lewis King and many others – like an athlete of ‘elite. Surely we have seen the future of sport? “There will be a jump in terms of athletes playing,” says the Queensland player. “He will become more elitist. The hope is that there will always be positions and opportunities for everyone to participate in the sport as it grows. It’s a delicate balance.

James Hill in action for Australia against Ireland. Photography: Henry Browne/Getty Images for RLWC

Wheelchair rugby league is already ahead of the racing game in terms of international matches played. While most men’s and women’s teams only played a few international matches between the start of the pandemic and the World Cup, most wheelchair teams have been much more active. They must maintain this momentum and return to the places that hosted this tournament with such joy: the Copper Box in London, the EIS in Sheffield and Manchester Central.

The game is already growing in England, with wheelchair clubs sprouting up everywhere, including at Salford Red Devils. In a role reversal between the men’s and women’s games, Australia wonder how to close the gap with France and England. “Our biggest competition is State of Origin and that’s where we picked the team,” says Hill. “That’s all we have to assess. We watch YouTube videos online, but we didn’t know the actual speed. When you play here against them, it’s a whole other level.

Hill plays for Ipswich Swifts in Australia and his career in the sport is not unusual: via the Duke of Edinburgh award in Queensland. He had to learn a new skill or sport in college and tried wheelchair basketball. “That was 10 years ago and I have never looked back. I tried wheelchair rugby and wasn’t a big fan at first, but came back to it in 2019.”

Irish captain Peter Johnston Junior came to the sport in a similar fashion, enjoying a college initiation session so much that he was hooked. This highlights another challenge: a large increase in the number of non-chair users learning the sport will make team selection difficult as only two able-bodied players are allowed on the field at a time, or result in a change in the rules.

“It’s already a problem,” admits Hill. “Look at the Australian bench: there are three guys sitting there off the pitch. You really have to take advantage of the chance to play. Do I think it will get to the point where there will be such an influx that it will become highly competitive? Absolutely. That they pass in the French championship – where everyone is awarded points, like in wheelchair basketball – is a completely different argument. It’s a great system, but will it ruin the inclusiveness of wheelchair rugby league? Maybe. We’ll never know unless we give it a shot.

“The sport is very new. These are the toddler years and this is going to go through changes over the years. Look how football has changed. It will continue to develop but it really is a beautiful sport. You won’t find many who watch Friday Night disagree with this.

what they said

Samoa celebrated loudly at the Emirates after beating England but will skip Saturday’s final for a party. “Confidence has gotten us this far – we always believed we could make things happen and here we are,” said man of the match Jarome Luai. “We’ve done something really special together – and we’re not done yet.” His bellicose coach, Matt Parish, added: “I keep asking them to play world-class games and they do – they never give up. They are inspiring. Keen. They put in an incredible effort. To put Samoa, a tiny point in the Pacific, in the World Cup final is pretty incredible. Captain Junior Paulo confirmed: “The journey continues – the war is not over.” They are synonymous with business.

About: Joseph Sua’ali’i, Samoa

While a lanky, extremely athletic and sublimely gifted full-back from the Sydney Roosters won the Golden Boot as International Player of the Year on Tuesday, another will play in the World Cup final on Saturday. At 19, Penrith-born Sua’ali’i is set to follow New Zealand’s Joey Manu in becoming a code superstar, having shone in every game he has played at the World Cup, just like Manu, although that he has only played 24 NRLs. matches so far.

world cup memory

Samoa assistant coach Lee Radford coaches the team. Photography: Gareth Copley/Getty Images

Before this World Cup, Samoa had played World Cup matches in Wales (two like Western Samoa in 1995), Belfast, Edinburgh and Perpignan, but only three in England. Their first was in 2000 when a staunch Workington crowd saw them beat Maori 21-16, followed by a 66-10 crush by Australia in the quarter-finals at a near-deserted, wet Watford. They only got an international against England in 2006, and even then they were a second-tier side. Making his seventh and final appearance for England in their 38-14 win at the KC Stadium in Hull, Samoa assistant manager Lee Radford, the only remaining Englishman with hopes of winning the World Cup.

Off the record

Stephen Crichton celebrates after scoring a try for Samoa against England at the Emirates.
Stephen Crichton celebrates after scoring a try for Samoa against England at the Emirates. Photography: Michael Steele/Getty Images

Seconds after the Samoan party departed from last Saturday’s press conference, the World Cup screens were removed. It had been 101 years since Arsenal had hosted a rugby union match and that too was an England international which left many participants unhappy. In October 1911, England beat Australia 5-4 in a dull front battle at Highbury that failed to demonstrate what smooth league play was for a union-centric capital. With poor sightlines in the lower tier of the Emirates and astronomical prices for limited refreshments, the spectator experience was so subpar at Tottenham Hotspur’s new stadium that it could be another century before the league returns to Arsenal.

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