Page XIII: I finally went to my first wheelchair rugby league game – and I loved it!

WHAT a treat I had on Saturday 6th April when I headed off to Wigan to watch my first-ever live game of wheelchair rugby league.

I am almost ashamed to admit that I am so late to this particular party, but it has not been deliberate. Timings simply haven’t aligned before and I have either had prior commitments or work has required me to be elsewhere when games in this newly emerging area of the sport have been played.

I have watched on TV of course, and caught replays and highlights, so I knew it would be quite brutal when I was there in person, and the European Club Championship game between Wigan Warriors and Catalans Dragons didn’t disappoint on that front.

I won’t regale you with all the details of the game, you can turn to pages 18 and 19 of this issue to read all about it and see some of the best images from the encounter, but it’s fair to say I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

One thing I had never picked up on before by watching on TV was the quite unique noise that metal chair colliding with metal chair produces. Add this to the fact it played out in a high-roofed, echoing sports hall and it was quite something to hear.

The mach literally had everything we love about the great game of rugby league – hard hits, flowing team moves, length of the field tries, skills of the highest level and players willing to put their bodies on the line time and time again.

I don’t think there was a fan in the arena that didn’t wince when Jérémy Bourson raced at full speed to collect a punt forward, scored and immediately collided with an advertising board and ended up on the floor. All because he couldn’t slow down enough after giving his all to increase the Dragons’ lead.

I travelled over with my RLW colleague Stephen Ibbetson, who also happens to be my go-to when it comes to all things wheelchair rugby league, and I was often picking his brains over various aspects of the game whilst he was writing the match report for our sister publication Rugby League Express – so, sorry for any distractions Stephen!

But it wasn’t just a day out for me while others did all the hard work, I did do something useful before the game kicked off as the RFL hosted a season launch for the new Wheelchair Super League season.

Granted it wasn’t anywhere near as big an event as the main Super League launch back in February, or even the Women’s season launch a month later. But the fact that the governing body now feels that there is enough interest to give to its own stand-alone event is a massive shot in the arm for all those who have put in so much time and effort to grow the game.

Perhaps there may have been a bit more media interest in the launch (and game) had it not clashed with the Super League fixture between Hull FC and Huddersfield, but hosting the two events together made perfect sense as it gave leading figures in the game the perfect platform to shout about it to those that were there to listen.

It was clear to see and hear, at the launch especially, just how many people are passionate about making the wheelchair game a real success.

Working a lot in the women’s game I know that all the people involved there with a similar amount of passion are now seeing the returns on their hard work, and while the wheelchair game may be a couple of years behind that in their development, I have no doubts they will start seeing their efforts pay off sooner rather than later.

I know there have been arguments in the past over the participation of able-bodied players in wheelchair rugby league, and I’m sure everyone has their own views on that. But if you simply want to be entertained, the fare on show at Wigan certainly did that.

The fact that there was a crowd of almost 450 people in the Robin Park Leisure Centre to see the game live, plus many many more watching the live feed on the Sportsman, shows the appetite is there. And if more people like me get bitten by the bug after their first live encounter, then the sky really is the limit for wheelchair rugby league.

First published in Rugby League World magazine, Issue 496 (May 2024)

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