“It’s my job to make the players adaptable, so they can face whatever is in front of them.” – James Simpson MBE

James Simpson MBE


England Wheelchair Rugby League World Cup hero James Simpson MBE has now switched his focus to coaching and the results are already impressive.

JAMES SIMPSON has been keeping fairly busy since his playing retirement at the end of last year.

The Wheelchair Rugby League legend finished his career on a high, as part of the England squad that not only won the World Cup last autumn but won the hearts of the nation and brought the up-and-coming version of the sport into the limelight.

Simpson has since taken over as the head coach of Leeds Rhinos, winning his first six matches of the season to put the club top of the Wheelchair Super League.

He has been continuing the World Cup legacy in Leeds and beyond, supporting the spread and growth of the wheelchair game.

There have been visits to Hampton Court Palace, meeting the Princess of Wales, and to the tennis at Wimbledon alongside a host of other sporting greats.

Oh, and it’s also now James Simpson MBE.

Simpson was one of four World Cup heroes to receive gongs in the King’s Birthday Honours in June, with England’s coach Tom Coyd and one of their star players, the international Golden Boot winner Seb Bechara, also awarded MBEs, while their captain – and fellow Rhino – Tom Halliwell was made an OBE.

It was a fine reward for several years of relentlessly both playing and promoting the sport, but also an opportunity for Simpson to sit back and realise what a difference he has made.

“I struggle sometimes to think about me. I’m always thinking ‘the team, the team’,” he said.

“Someone had to sit me down before (the news) came out and say ‘this is just for you, for the work that you did’, as an ambassador for the World Cup, for pushing the game and growing the game. And they were right, actually, it is nice to have. I’m absolutely over the moon about it.

“Sometimes I forget everything I did. I catch up with people every so often who were part of that off-field World Cup team, and we talk about the time we went to Dubai to the expo and took the World Cup trophies, when we went to Buckingham Palace to do the draw. It’s moments like that, you’re thinking ‘yeah, it’s been a wild ride’.

“For Tom, Tom and Seb to get (honours) as well, until this point we had one or maybe two people who had got them in the wheelchair game. We had four this year.”

From the bright lights and blitz of publicity that came with the World Cup, it’s been back to the grind of domestic action since – more modest in terms of support and coverage, certainly, but the quality in the Wheelchair Super League so far this year has been very high.

With international players spread across the six clubs there is quality throughout, and a lot of even and highly competitive matches which, as the World Cup final showed, is when the sport becomes truly exceptional.

Wigan Warriors beating the defending champions, Halifax Panthers, in the opening round was a sign of things to come, as was Hull FC beating London Roosters, who since then have gone on a phenomenal run themselves. With the exception, so far, of Warrington Wolves at the rear, anyone can beat anyone.

“There’s no blowouts, there are competitive games all over the place,” said Simpson. “And the teams who aren’t as competitive are learning, they’re evolving and getting better and they will be competitive next year.”

Leeds were the early frontrunners, with that opening run of half-a-dozen wins including impressive performances against London and Halifax (the latter a rematch of last year’s Grand Final, when the Panthers won a thriller by four points) in Magic rounds, which are a new innovation this year taking the league on the road to four major cities.

“I’m really chuffed,” said Simpson of the Rhinos’ start, “but it’s a long year. I don’t get carried away. One game at a time.”

If he sounds very much like a coach already, he looks like one too. He’s a model of calm on the sidelines, very much leaving his players to play the game while observing the signature chaos of the wheelchair game in front of him. It’s an approach he says came from his time in the army, in which he served for a decade before losing his legs in an explosion in Afghanistan which led him onto this very different life path.

“It’s quite stressful, but I love it!” he says of coaching. “I’m passionate about it. Everything we do has a purpose.

“I was a soldier for ten years so I’m calm. And me losing my head, unless something has drastically gone wrong, it doesn’t do anything for them. They need to be told how good they are and how good they are as a team together. I find that works a lot better than just shouting at people. I think that’s a bit outdated now.

“It’s my job to make the players adaptable, so they can face whatever is in front of them. That’s my philosophy – I need my players to be able to do without me, to react to what’s going on. There are times I send on messages but they say ‘no we’ve spotted this’. So I’m like ‘go with it’. I’m not out there and I know you guys know what you need to do.”

It’s not a completed job yet – when Simpson and Halliwell were missing for their recent clash against London, for the aforementioned date in the Royal Box at Wimbledon, Leeds lost for the first time this season in the final seconds of another brilliantly dramatic match.

That result put the Roosters level on points with the Rhinos at the top, with Halifax, Wigan and Hull all breathing down their necks and looking to make – and then win – what promise to be thrilling end-of-season play-offs.

It’s been a busy year so far for Simpson and there’s no sign of it slowing down.

First published in Rugby League World magazine, Issue 487 (August 2023)

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