Since I arrived in London a few years ago I’ve been lucky enough to play for a rugby club that not only has a 2nd XV that plays at my sort of level, astounding facilities and a lively social life, but also has connections to a parent organisation that presents opportunities to do some pretty special things – from Hong Kong Sevens to in last week a charity wheelchair rugby tournament (aka “Murderball” from the eponymous film).
I was a last minute fill-in. Junior had not been having the cheeriest of weeks. He’s had a bit of a cold, and appears to be doing some development. So I decided that instead of trying to contain him and entertain him, I’d just take him out and hope we both had some fun. And boy did we!
This is only the second year of the tournament, which was started last year to support Paul Barker, a guy who broke a leg playing rugby, and as a direct result developed cancer. Last year he got a day release from hospital to come. This year he was there at full strength, albeit minus a leg which was one of the prices of survival. As someone with pro rugby contacts he’d got the Leicester Tigers Wheelchair Rugby team as well as London Wheelchair Rugby Club involved. As a Gloucester fan I was slightly dismayed by all the Tigers logos, but they did it well. The day was in support on the Matt Hampson Foundation, another rugby-based charity.
Straight away I’d say that wheelchair rugby is the most fun new sport I’ve tried in years. It is one of those deceptively simple games that you can add all kinds of layers and skills to. At its most basic it’s 4-a-side, with the aim to carry the ball across a try line. Wheelchair contact is allowed and encouraged, with opportunities to cheat every bit as much as real rugby. And it is REALLY hard work – the chairs aren’t that light, throwing is an art, and it is completely non-stop. Even though I know we weren’t playing at the pace actual players would!
We had something of a slow start, as although the bank had won the tournament last year, there were only two survivors of that team – the rest were newbies like me. But once we got to grips with the chairs and tactics (“get goal-side!” was the mantra of the day) we started to play some actual proper game. As evidenced by the below video which shows an excellent defensive play by yours truly (extreme left of shot) to not only block their upfield player but also win the ball back for us.
In the end we (nominally Ireland) came third – nearly winning both pool games (comfortably beating the eventual winners England I might add, and only being denied the win against Scotland by the inspired, surprisingly rapid and unsurprisingly vocal premiership referee JP Doyle), losing to the nominal All Blacks, and then beating Australia in the playoff.
Best of all Junior loved the whole day and was brilliantly well-behaved. He napped at the best possible times (allowing me to play 3 of the games unimpeded), and was quite happy being thrown into the arms of teammates when substitutions happened – small wobble the first time, but once he realised I was coming back he was fine. I was also lucky that the team was so happy to look after him, and did a great job keeping him happy. Some potentially great dads I think. And he was praised by loads of other people for his good nature. He even made the mass team photo. He was absolutely in his element – new things to look at, people to meet, and actually quite a lot of attention from me to make sure he didn’t crawl in the path of a couple of hundred kilos of man and machine…
I know he’s too young to appreciate the importance of this, but seeing and experiencing something that “disabled” people are clearly better, faster and more skilled at is a lesson I’ll be keen to reinforce for Junior throughout his life – and watching or playing wheelchair rugby seems like a great way to do that!