Murderball takes centre stage
September 22, 2012
David Anthony was one of the 2012 Paralympics' pin-ups © PA Photos
The Paralympics may be over but its legacy is still reverberating around Britain.
On driving back to Bath recently, talk on a national radio station was dominated by Hollyoaks, Example's latest hit and the Paralympics. But one sport more than most seemed to grab the attention of one of Bolton's finest Vernon Kay - wheelchair rugby.
Paralympic champion Josie Pearson, who took the F51 discus gold, was being interviewed and she revealed that she used to play the sport. Kay's voice lit up and there seemed to be the crux of the interview; not her incredible achievement but instead what it was like to play in one of the most brutal sports in existence.
Team GB failed to lift a medal in the 2012 Games but it certainly captured the nation's attention. The sport was splashed across the front pages of many national newspapers and Twitter was awash with stories of huge hits, sheer brutality and superb scores. The ESPNscrum team were lucky enough to witness Great Britain's do-or-die match against Japan and while the result did not go the way the majority of fans would've wanted in the stadium - Japan won 51-39 - it was an experience that will live long in the memory of the 16,000 supporters packed into the Basketball arena in Olympic Park.
Prime Minister David Cameron was among those notable figures lured to the sport while England rugby captain Chris Robshaw was another to sample the action and you can see why. Sat in the front row of the arena, we were fully immersed in the action. From the pre-match rallying calls from the PA to the start of the game and the clash of metal-on-metal - it is a very marketable sport.
These are elite sportmen and women doing remarkable things from the confines of their wheelchairs. The blue mohawk of Team GB's David Anthony graced most newsstands around the country while the likes of Kylie Grimes - one of the only two female competitors in the eight teams in this year's tournament - and Aaron Phipps were also prominent. The latter is Team GB's star player and also a marked man. Five times he was upended by prompting the two support staff to run onto the field - complete with blue mat for grip - to lift him back on to his wheels. It all happens in the blink of an eye and without the slightest protestation from the player.
Then there's the angry man - Anthony. Harlequins' Joe Marler has turned to the Mohican in the past and was immediately consigned to the category of the rebellious player. Anthony is the wheelchair rugby equivalent. Never the shrinking violet, Anthony was passionate throughout.
And then there was the Japanese - they too have their stars and potential idols. They had their Kimono-sporting supporters in the crowd and in Daisuke Izezaki, they have a superstar of the game. The No.7 was superb and proved to be a constant thorn in the side of Team GB.
It was Australia who eventually claimed the gold medal with victory over Canada in the title-decider with Ryley Batt taking a starring role. Widely regarded as the best player in the world, he is unparalleled with ball in hand and is a fan of big hits - as shown here in a training session.
GB Wheelchair Rugby CEO David Pond now faces the task of trying to negotiate the next round of funding from UK Sport and Sport England that will provide the platform for what they hope will be a medal-winning display at the 2016 Rio Olympics - a task all the harder for not having forced their way into contention in London. But the spike in the sport's profile and the clear hunger for more of the same is sure to bolster his claims. The IRB is also keen on developing the sport having signed a "memorandum of understanding in 2010 to work together on matters of mutual interest ".
Another interested spectator in the crowd was Saracens owner Nigel Wray. He has never shied away from the extraordinary be it bringing in the likes of Francois Pienaar to taking his side to South Africa and more recently offering £1million in prize money for a lucky fan at their gala game at Wembley. And he is very excited about the future of the sport - something which IRB chairman Bernard Lapasset describes as a "winning blend of world-class competition and entertainment".
Aaron Phipps clashes with Japanese superstar Daisuke Izezaki © PA Photos
"I think wheelchair rugby will become a good spectator sport in between Paralympics and not just at the Games," Wray told ESPN. "That itself will bring challenges for the sport but it's an athletic sport in its own right. I think it will get audiences of thousands coming to see them play.
"I've already written to David and said 'let's sit down and have a chat and see what we can do'. Its rugby and the fact is that our guys can learn a lot from the wheelchair rugby players' mentality and effort. And hopefully they can learn a fair bit from our guys regarding their professional attitude. Having met the wheelchair athletes, they are remarkable people.
"Speaking personally and for Saracens I think it is a terrific thing to be involved in and support and we are going to try and do just that."
Pond hopes to have a parallel wheelchair rugby tournament running alongside the 2015 World Cup which would only do good things for the sport. It is potentially a truly global game. It has already had featured on the big screen and with personalities such as Anthony and Phipps the shining lights for Team GB then they have their requisite pin-ups.
The potential is huge, but much will depend on the next budget, something that did not escape the attention of the Team GB coach as his side's challenge faded. Their inability to get that required piece of metal around their necks may yet prove costly.
"We need to review and reflect, sit down with UK Sport after this; hopefully we secure the funding we need to go to Rio, that's the legacy," said Tom O'Connor after seeing his side lose to Japan. "And that's the worry now. Every sport is performing so well. We've got a great product but we need to perform."
For the good of the sport and the future of something truly remarkable, let's hope that the powers that be back the athletes and their aspirations with the required funding.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.
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