“You’re going to enjoy this,” Wayne Boardman, a long-serving member of England’s wheelchair side, tells me as I arrive at Calderdale College in Halifax. Boardman’s smile somewhat subtly implies it will be him and his teammates who will enjoy watching me try wheelchair rugby league for the first time, rather than the other way round. After all, they know what I’ve let myself in for.
The sport isn’t even 20 years old, having been devised in 2004 in France. It is arguably the most inclusive and diverse sport there is, pitting disabled and non-disabled, male and female, on the same teams. But the most striking aspect is its brutality and physicality, with the players regularly crashing into each other at full tilt.
So here I am, about to join an England training session for the Wheelchair Rugby League World Cup, which begins on Thursday when the hosts take on Australia.
England have lost the past two finals to France but believe they have the squad to go all the way this year. Now I’d class myself as fit: I run 50 miles a week and compete in races regularly. But I was about to have my eyes opened to a whole new world of fitness and supreme athleticism.
England’s team manager, John McMullen, brings me the wheelchair I’ll use and straps my legs and feet together so my entire lower body is effectively immobilised. My chair is fairly standard but, thanks to World Cup funding, England’s squad have custom-made chairs costing up to £10,000.
That is because they have a variety of needs and a wide range of stories to this point. James Simpson discovered wheelchair rugby league after losing his legs while serving in Afghanistan in 2009. The sport played a pivotal role in Sébastien Bechara’s recovery from a motorcycle accident that resulted in his right leg below the knee being amputated.
Perhaps optimistically, I get to grips with the basics of moving in the chair and turning pretty quickly. Then someone throws me a ball and tells me to pass it back while I’m moving. Not so simple. The skill level required just to execute something that straightforward is tough to adjust to and we haven’t even started the session yet.
This is where the fitness and skill of England’s players begins to shine. We are told by McMullen to sprint for 15 metres, turn our chairs on the spot and race back. And do it three times without stopping. Shouldn’t be too difficult, I thought: until the whistle blows and the squad set off at a rate of knots. I come in dead last and my neck, shoulders and arms are already beginning to ache.
Watching the upper-body strength of players such as Rob Hawkins and Nathan Collins – who has dwarfism – and the speed they move at is incredible. Their skill is just as mesmerising, making a drill where we weave behind one another while passing the ball look like child’s play. I, meanwhile, am now in complete agony and struggling to move the chair, let alone execute the requisite skill to keep up.
Then the part I was dreading: the contact session. We’re split into mini-teams for a game of attack versus defence. The speed at which the players collide into one another is enough to make a spectator wince, let alone someone in the thick of the battle. I get the distinct feeling the England squad are taking it easy on me.
That point is emphasised when I sit one drill out and two of the squad end up on their backs due to the ferocity of the collisions. By this point my whole body is aching and my brain feels scrambled after learning how to wheel, pass and turn all at the same time.
That’s my cue, after a pulsating and entertaining hour’s training, to call it a day. McMullen affords me a wry grin as if to say he isn’t surprised. The squad continue training for at least another hour, working on their fitness and skill with no let-up in intensity. I’ve seen wheelchair rugby live but having experienced it close up the stamina, intensity and general athleticism has left me in awe.
A few years ago, wheelchair rugby league was played in empty arenas. Now, the Super League is regularly broadcast and on Thursday the World Cup opener between England and Australia at the Copper Box in London is sold out and will be live on BBC Two. The final in Manchester is approaching a sell out. It is a platform, and an audience, these extraordinary athletes fully deserve.
Bruised, blistered from wheeling the chair, and aching, I headed for the pub to tell my friends all about it. But as they asked me to explain what wheelchair rugby league was like, all I could tell them was that they had to see it first-hand and to make sure they watch the tournament. I’d give you the same advice.