Wheelchair rugby: Disappointment whets desire

By Cameron Leslie

The distinct crash and bang of aluminum wheelchairs echoed around Wellington on the weekend.

I was there contributing to the racket.

I'm probably known in sports circles for my achievements in the swimming pool, after winning gold medals at the Beijing and London Paralympics, but there's a wheelchair rugby string to my bow which is building towards an Oceania Zonal tournament later this year.

I spend about one weekend a month in Auckland training with the New Zealand wheelchair rugby team, the Wheel Blacks.

Most recently I spent the weekend in Wellington playing for the Waikato team in the finals round of the national tournament, where my Waikato team finished fourth after a period of extra time against the heavily favoured Auckland side.

Played across four eight-minute quarters, we fought back after having lost to the same Auckland team the day before to be up by four goals with four minutes remaining. However, a late Auckland fightback saw the lead diminish, and we missed a goal scoring opportunity with nine seconds remaining, and take the match to extra time where the Aucklanders fitness shone through.

The disappointing finish means there will be plenty of motivation in two months time when the sides meet again at a national knockout tournament in Christchurch.

While wheelchair rugby is a sport which was designed for athletes with spinal cord injuries, I qualify based on the ruling that to play athletes must have at least three limbs affected by some sort of disability.

However, like most disability sports, there is a classification system where players are giving a points rating between 0.5 and 3.5 to ensure a fair contest between teams.

Each team is made up of four players where the total number of points on the court at a time cannot exceed eight.

I was born with a quadruple limb deficiency, meaning I am an attacking player. Being an attacking player means I am essentially a first-five who directs and rallies the troops on court, while theoretically having the speed of a winger to run down break away goals.

The scoring system is relatively simple with one point being given per goal, of which is scored by an offensive player pushing his/her chair between two cones on the indoor court. Players are not required to plant the ball on the ground like able-bodied rugby, the main reason for this is the varying levels of disability means some players are unable to functionally achieve the movement.

While the rules are that to play internationally players must have at least three limbs affected by disability, to play nationally for a regional team the rules are a bit more relaxed. It is not uncommon to see able-bodied players leaping out of the specially designed rugby chairs to help fill numbers and emulate the function of some international players. There as also paraplegic players, wheelchair users who have broken their back rather than their neck, who compete in the sport.

To find out more or get involved in wheelchair rugby go to wheelblacks.com.

- Northern Advocate

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