James remembers hearing the steward shout to open the gates and let the lad in the chair inside. That was when as a young fella he crossed the road with his father and brother to go to the famous All Blacks game in 1978. Growing up a stone’s throw from Thomond, rugby is in his DNA but it was only in April 2013 that he finally got a chance to play the game he loves. The Frenchman who invented the sport of Wheelchair Rugby 7s came to Ireland and James was hooked. Now like other members of his family – his father, brother, niece and nephew, uncles and cousins – he is a rugby player!
I knew next to nothing about this sport but my interest was piqued when a friend suggested writing about the recent success of the Irish wheelchair rugby 7s team captained by his friend James McCarthy. My “research” unearthed a 4 minute video on YouTube which provided a great insight as I could see the players scrummage, take lineouts and penalties and score a try. I observed that the same principles and strategy applied as to the game we love – take the tackle, suck in defenders, quick offloads, change the direction of play, move the ball from one wing to the other, look for mismatches, all to make the space to score. While the set pieces were recognisable, with only 7-a-side the scrum involved three players lining up on each side in an almost reverse tug of war as they tried to push the other team back and gain possession for themselves in a real power struggle. The lineout had no lifters for obvious reasons so height was helpful while the penalties and conversions involved swinging a fist at a ball on a tee.
I was impressed by the speed to which the players could accelerate, their agility in changing direction (a sidestep is not as easy in a chair so timing and the ability to dummy are key), their bravery in the tackle and ball handling skills. At times it looked mad, but it also looked like fun, bringing back memories of holidays in Ballybunion crashing into my sister in the bumper cars!
To find out more I had a Skype call with James, making this my first interview blog. The Irish team train twice a month in Dublin but the plan is to set up provincial teams so James is recruiting in Munster. Everyone is welcome, male or female, players with disabilities or without so if you would like to find out more you can contact James or Derek (email: email@example.com)
Players need to be reasonably fit as the game is 40 minutes a side, although rolling subs are allowed on and off throughout the game. For the able bodied players a GAA background can help with the “kicking” of the ball as it is similar to a handpass or a volleyball serve with a closed fist. The scrum engagement is all about the hands – the hookers start with their fists on their legs, then ramps (wheels), the ref calls push (engage) and then play when the ball is put in and it becomes a free for all to see who can reclaim the ball. In the video clip James was in the front row but is equally comfortable out on the wing as you could see in the video as he was the one to score that try. Roles are interchangeable as appropriate to the various set plays they practice.
It is a very physical game, James is often black and blue afterwards! A big tackle can cause a chair to overturn so not a game for the faint-hearted. However, representing Ireland is a huge achievement for all the players, especially in rugby, a sport which for most of the team seemed impossible only 18 months ago.
Training will probably take place in Limerick weekly or perhaps every other week. The first challenge for any able bodied players getting involved will be to learn chair skills and get the muscles in their arms used to moving them up and down twice the length of a basketball court. James stressed that this is a very inclusive sport as you could see in the video above. The only requirement is to be over 16. I doubted that I would have enough strength in my arms since I am rubbish at press-ups but James said it uses similar muscles to swimming so maybe I would manage. It is a different sport to murderball, being much closer in rules and techniques to the regular game. There is a good article on the sport by the FrontRowUnion worth checking out if you want to read more: http://thefrontrowunion.com/2014/06/wheelchair-rugby-game-continues-to-develop-with-first-ever-home-nations/ Finally if you cannot participate you might be able to support the team by spreading the word, turning up to support them at games and/or helping their fundraising efforts to cover the costs.
For those living in other provinces, as mentioned above they are also looking to set up teams. You can find out more information from the Irish Wheelchair Association or check out the Irish wheelchair 7s twitter account: @WCRugby7sIRL.
This is a fully inclusive sport for guys & girls with or without disabilities!!