Wheelchair Rugby is one of the most hotly-anticipated events of the London 2012 Paralympic Games. While Premiership Rugby clubs around London struggle to fill their seats, wheelchair rugby, otherwise known as ‘murderball’, sold out months ago.
The players may be in wheelchairs, but this sport is by no means confined by the boundaries of politically correct safety measures. Just as they do in the regular game, players love to smash into one another, regardless of their size, shape or stoicism.
Commonly described as ‘chess with violence’, wheelchair rugby is as much a game of tactics as it is metal-on-metal aggression. Players are classified according to the nature of their disability, taking into account attributes such as balance, flexibility and strength. Highly-impaired athletes are classified as 0.5, while the most able, with shoulder strength and ball handling skills, are classified up to 3.5. Teams are made up of four players with a combination not in excess of 8.0 at any time.
The rules are straightforward; goals are scored when a player crosses two wheels over the line, with full control of the ball. Athletes must dribble or pass every 10 seconds, where failure to do so results in a turnover. The result? An end-to-end, fast moving game, which pushes players to the limits of their physical ability.
With full arm movement, Steve Brown is classed as a 2.0 mid-pointer. At 24 years old, Steve fell from a balcony whilst working in Germany. The incident left him with spinal cord damage and paralysis from the waist down. While coming to terms with his injuries, Steve went along to watch a wheelchair rugby match, the experience encouraged him to reconvene in sport, and he is now set to lead Great Britain at London 2012.
“After the accident I was quite down and went and watched a game of wheelchair rugby and saw people in the same position as me, some with far worse injuries. They were playing professionally and living as real athletes and it gave me a direction. I decided it was the sport for me.”
As a full-time athlete, Brown has had to adapt to the training, diet and lifestyle expected of a professional sportsman. Brown has been working hard over the last four years and, having been overlooked for the 2008 Paralympics, he will be desperate to lead Team GB to their first ever Paralympic medal in London.
“The Games are special because the athletes have gone through so much and often have a lot of other challenges to overcome. They have had to cope with a lot more in their lives than just the sport, the training and the dedication. When life gives you a bad hand it is very easy to give up, you have to admire the athletes involved in the Paralympics for carrying on.”
Brown will be tackling London’s courts with his usual gusto, without fear of putting his body on the line. In 2009, Brown was on the wrong end of a double hit – the impact sent Brown flying out of his chair and put him in intensive care for three days with a complex sternum break. After a further six weeks in hospital, and a four-month recovery, Brown was back on the court.
“I didn’t realise how badly hurt I was at first and drove back home, but the next day my chest was black and blue… I missed some big competitions.”
Steve will be hoping that teammate Aaron Phibbs can build the team’s success off his tough-nut approach. Phibbs is an ex-wheelchair racer, whose speed makes him an invaluable asset to the team. Having recently scored nearly 60% of Britain’s points at the 2012 Canada Cup, Phibbs has been tipped as one to watch at London 2012.
Britain face stiff competition from the USA, Canada and Australia, if they are going to prevail in the Olympic Park. Australia’s Ryan Batt is widely regarded as the world’s best player, and he will be out to rain on Britain’s parade. Either way, Paralympic fever is set to provide Britain’s deserving athletes with a once in a lifetime experience, and they will be sure to put on a show.