It's rugby but not as you know it
September 3, 2012
Great Britain's Aaron Phipps tries to retain possession © PA Photos
The rules of wheelchair rugby
'It's chess, but with violence' and it will be one of the most popular sports at the Paralympics. Intrigued? You're not the only one. Tickets for the wheelchair rugby sold out in three days and on September 5 the reigning champions the USA take to the field of play against Team GB in the tournament opener.
For those who are yet to witness the sport, it resembles a demolition derby as two sets of four players attempt to carry the ball over the opposition's line marked by two cones. Or for a more concise definition, look to Team GB's Troye Collins who recently told the Daily Telegraph: "Get the ball to the other end of the gym and score as many points as you can by beating the crap out of everyone."
It may be labelled 'rugby', but it is a blend of four or so sports, according to Great Britain Wheelchair Rugby chief executive David Pond.
"Wheelchair rugby is a mix between rugby, American football, wheelchair basketball and a bit of ice hockey," Pond told ESPN. "Why is it like that? It started off in North America and was created by a group of Canadian and and American quadraplegics who did not have the functionality to play wheelchair basketball; hence the ice hockey and American football. But the reason it's described like that is because it is incredibly tactical, hence the reference to chess. As well as the big hits, which are a massive attraction, they don't just happen for the sake of it, they are part of the tactical plan and designed to spill the ball or prevent passage of the player."
The sport is not open to everyone wheelchair-bound with
Team GB's 3.5 - the class that includes those athletes with the least disability or "minimal" disability - suffered from meningitis at a young age. "He got meningitis aged 12 so he had amputations in legs but as it happens he also had amputations of his fingers and parts of his thumbs so when he was tested he's at the upper end of the classification spectrum but eligible to play," Pond said.
What is also intriguing about wheelchair rugby is that it is a mixed sport. Team GB have Kylie Grimes in their line-up - someone who broke her neck having been an equestrian.
A high proportion of the sport's participants have had a spinal injury trauma. This may be an individual who has broken their neck playing sport or perhaps falling off a horse. Gifted sportsmen or elite individuals are one of the the targets of the recruitment drive from Pond's point of view.
GB skipper Steve Brown in action © PA Photos
The GBWR has rolled out a pilot youth programme in Scotland this year with the goal of exposing young disabled people to the sport, and with the help of charities and sporting organisations they hope to roll a scheme out across GB over the next four years. With the focus on increasing professionalism in the sport at elite level, Pond is now working with military rehabilitation units and a wide variety of disability organisations to recruit new players to the game.
With wheelchair rugby expected to be a huge success at the 2012 Games, plans are afoot to really push the sport around the United Kingdom in the next four years in the run-up to the 2015 World Cup. The GBWR has already linked up with Saracens - in what Pond describes as a "non-commercial partnership" - and has met with Harlequins to explore partnership opportunities. The Matt Hampson Foundation has also become a key partner in the sport's development and Pond has brokered a formal partnership with the Rugby Football Union (RFU) which offers a back office and support functions.
The next stage is to attach the sport to the 2015 Rugby World Cup with a wheelchair rugby tournament potentially running alongside the global gathering. While this is still in development, it is clear that Pond and the GBWR have big plans for the sport.
"At the moment we've got 10 clubs operating across the country and in each of those clubs there's probably, on average about 12 players," Pond said. "The London sides probably have a few more - maybe 20 or 30. So there are not a huge number of players in clubs but that's really because we've been in this transformation programme for the last three years and classification issues mean that the market place for players will never be as big as it is for, say, wheelchair basketball.
"We know we've got massive areas where there's no footprint in the game and there's a clamour to get clubs started there. But this must be manageable and an area where we can support the growth of those clubs. Part of this will be achievement or otherwise through the next funding cycle with UK Sport and our various commercial and charitable providers."
The Paralympics will see eight nations going for gold, with the USA and Australia the out-and-out favourites. The Americans have won three of the four golds in Paralympic Games to date and are positioned nicely to continue their winning form. Team GB will play alongside them, Japan and France in Pool A of the tournament. "Those last eight sides, there's no difference between elite sport at Paralympic level and elite sport at any other level in terms of preparation and quality," Pond said.
Great Britain vie with Sweden in the Paralympic test event at the Olympic Park © PA Photos
The success of Team GB in the recent Olympics will not have gone unnoticed by Pond. With both Games built around a legacy, success on the court for the wheelchair rugby team would lead to an inevitable spike in interest. There is no doubt that 'murderball' will be one of the most popular events at the Paralympics as it incorporates everything that makes sport great - fast flowing action, competition and humans pushed to their limits.
"If we get onto the podium then it gives you a whole different edge. But we've got to be cautious - we started to professionalise in the last two years," Pond said. "Although GB has come fourth in previous Paralympics, the game has moved on, the quality across the globe is improving all the time and the competition fierce. We have a new team and for over half of those in it, this will be their first Paralympics. If we want to remain at the top of the international game we will have to continue our focus on performance and professionalising all aspects of our game and organisation. When I was recruited as the CEO, the Board of Trustees, then led by a former Paralympian, Justin Frishberg, made it clear that was my task.
"The current team are capable of a medal - the USA and Australia are probably ahead of them at this stage but having said that, we are in the mix for a bronze medal. And who knows, maybe something remarkable will happen and that's the reason why people love sport."
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.