Wheelchair Rugby – getting it over the line

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Many of you may have seen Wheelchair Rugby scenes feature in the TV ad for the Paralympics.  This is still a fairly young sport in which twenty-six countries actively participate, with over fifteen more developing programs for its progression.

Prior to the idea of wheelchair rugby there was wheelchair basketball which, as a fast-paced game, requires speed, strength and ability.

These requirements mean that weaker athletes, such as quadriplegic (or tetraplegic) athletes, who are paralysed at arm level, would be placed at the bottom of the pile in terms of selection for a team, while stronger athletes such as paraplegics and amputees would be higher on the list.

In Winnipeg, Canada in 1977, a group of quadriplegic athletes got together with the aim of setting up an alternative sport to wheelchair basketball.

What they came up with was a sport called ‘Murderball’, which was renamed ‘Wheelchair Rugby’ in the late 1980s due to marketing purposes.

The object is to carry the ball across the opposite line between two cones.  Physical contact is mandatory, but bodily contact is forbidden, which means that specially designed wheelchairs are required to withstand impact.

Eligibility for this sport requires that a player’s disability affects arms and legs.  The most common example of this would be spinal cord injury (SCI), but other examples would include cerebral palsy and amputations.

Men and women would compete in the same teams and competitions.  Each player would be assigned a classification based on his/her level of ability.

For example, amputees with otherwise full-body strength would be a high classification and play on the offense, while quadriplegics with minor hand/arm function would be a low classification and play on the defense.

The new sport appeared at Southwest State University in Minnesota, US in 1979 and the first US team was formed in 1981.  The following year brought the first international tournament involving teams from the US and Canada, with Great Britain joining the stage in 1989.

Popularity and growth of the sport reached new levels when it appeared at the World Wheelchair Games as an exhibition match in 1990, and three years later fifteen countries were actively participating.

Also in ’93, the International Wheelchair Rugby Federation (IWRF) was established as a sub-section of the Stoke Mandeville Wheelchair Sports Federation and, with the game recognized as an official sport for athletes with disability, seven countries participated at the Stoke Mandeville International World Wheelchair Games.

In 1994 the International Paralympic Council recognized Wheelchair Rugby as an official paralympic sport and the World Championships were first held in Nottwil, Switzerland in the same year.

It was included as a demonstration at the Paralympic Games in Atlanta ’96, where six teams competed, and became recognized as a full-medal sport in Sydney 2000.  The World Championships and the Paralympic Games are held alternately every two years.

The IWRF includes three zones, which are the Americas, with six active nations; Europe, with fourteen active nations; and Asia-Oceana, also with six active nations.

In 1997, sportsman Garrett Culliton, who was injured on the rugby field and saw wheelchair rugby played in the USA, brought the game to Ireland.  The Gaelic Warriors were the first club to be established in Ireland, in Dublin, with another established later in Cork.

The Gaelic Warriors have taken part in tournaments such as the Bernd Best tournament in Cologne, Germany, which is the largest in the world; RugbyMania in the Czech Republic; and also in the GB League.

They won their first trophy in 2002 and won the qualifying group for the 2005 European Championships in late 2004.  The Gaelic Warriors currently have about twenty to thirty players from across the island of Ireland, the vast majority of them with spinal injuries.  There have been moves to establish a new club in Northern Ireland, to save players traveling the journey to Dublin, with a club set to launch in October.

I joined the Gaelic Warriors last July, getting involved in the training sessions each Wednesday, where I made new friends as well as building fitness.

Starting September through to December we played one weekend each in Sligo, Antrim, Cork and Dublin in the Irish League.  As time went on I could feel myself getting stronger and pushing myself harder, in training as well as in everyday life.

In April we traveled to Cologne in Germany for the Bernd Best tournament and an enjoyable weekend, where I found what the competition was really like.

I travelled with the team again in July to play in the low-pointers’ tournament in Birmingham, and the Irish League will begin at the end of August.

The Irish team itself finished eleventh at the 2003 European Championships and twelfth in the same tournament in 2007, and eleventh again in 2011.

Ireland is currently ranked sixteen in the world rankings behind Switzerland and ahead of Korea, while the USA is first, followed by Australia, Japan and Sweden.  Great Britain is ranked sixth, behind Canada and ahead of Belgium.

Development of the game on the island of Ireland requires charitable funding from sponsors as well as donors.  Irish Wheelchair Rugby takes a similar form as, and is associated with, the Irish Rugby Football Union, in that it covers teams across the island.

Donations can be made on http://www.gaelicwarriors.com, and new players are always welcome, for which information can also be found on the Gaelic Warriors website.

It could be you meeting people while training for medals at next year’s tournaments or having the craic after a tense competitive game in Cardiff or Cologne.

Keep an eye out for this growing sport at the Paralympics, starting 29th August, as well as the launch of the Ulster club in the Antrim leg of the Irish League in October.


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About Author

Born on 9th May 1988, Sean Smyth lived in Loughinisland with his parents Adrian and Christine and younger brother Philip until June 1997 before the family moved to Downpatrick.
 In March 1998, Sean’s life took a turn when he was knocked down as he was crossing the road, suffering a serious head injury and left paralysed, but forces enabled him to return to Primary 7 in Loughinisland after discharge in August and he transferred to St Colmcille’s High School in Crossgar the following year. Hospitalised for a four-month period in his final GCSE year, Sean sat only two of his GCSEs and transferred to St Malachy’s High School in Castlewellan to achieve his Maths and English as well as a GNVQ in Business to boost his GCSE grades. Unsatisfactory grades in the ICT and Double Business A-Levels that followed led him to sit a HND in Computing, before enrolling to a Computer Science degree in Queen’s University Belfast. Finding that his interests lay more in politics than computers, Sean attempted unsuccessfully to transfer to politics after failing exam re-sits and is now intent on sitting an A-Level on the subject.
 Prior to his accident, Sean was learning to play the guitar. Since then he has played various sports including wheelchair tennis, archery, canoeing and skiing. He has been playing wheelchair rugby in Dublin over the past year and is involved in setting up and publicising a new club in Antrim called the Ulster Warriors Wheelchair Rugby Club. This is set to launch in October.

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