The man bidding to take wheelchair rugby league to Ireland

Fred Nye has a lot on his plate right now, writes IAN GOLDEN. The founder/coach of The Argonauts Wheelchair Rugby League club is also a development coach for Ireland Rugby League. 

NOT ONLY is Fred Nye preparing for a new season of the WRL Wheelchair Invitational League, there is also big excitement in the Emerald Isle after Wheelchair Rugby League was played there for the first time in April.

First for Nye was a trip to Belfast on the weekend of April 13th/14th for open trials for budding new Wheelchair Rugby League players then a staging of the first ever match, which was between two trial sides, as there are still no clubs over there. Then on April 20th, his Argonauts side opened their defence of the Welsh title by travelling to Croesyceiliog and facing Torfaen Tigers and Crusaders Celts.

The WRL Invitational League has expanded from its modest roots in 2023, when there were five sides who each played four matches before the top two sides faced each other in the final, where the Argonauts beat Hereford Harriers.

This year, the two English sides are again joined by Torfaen, Cardiff Blue Dragons and North Wales Crusaders, with the Deeside-based Crusaders Celts joining the fold and making up six sides.

There will be 12 match-dates where three sides will travel to one venue and play each other once, leading to each side playing 12 regular season games.

But why did Argonauts, a team in Kent, who have reached two RFL Wheelchair Challenge Cup Finals in recent years, transfer from the English to the Welsh set-up? Nye explains.

“We get on really well with the Wales coaches,” he said. “We have done since 2017 when we went down to France to watch the World Cup and I had a really good chat with them about how Wheelchair Rugby League in Wales was going.

“My first ever match was against Hereford. That was back in 2015 at the Slam competition that the Crusaders used to hold. I was impressed with the hospitality there, so something that we as a club put in early on was whoever travels down, we’ll smash each other for 80 minutes, then we’ll go down to the pub and have a chat together. This is mirrored on how we saw the Crusaders operate, it’s a sport but also a social event. So that was one of the big things that made us want to get involved in the development of a league in Wales. I said to Steve Jones, head of Wheelchair RL in Wales, that as soon as a league was set-up, we wanted to get involved and due to some other factors, we transferred our interest completely to Wales.

“We like the way that the league is structured, that only one elite player is allowed on the pitch at once and there’s a focus on development. Hopefully we can get the balance right between the elite and development players this season.

“We also know that fragile players, such as those with cerebral palsy and brittle bones, can also play as we’ll tell the players on the other side to go easy with the big hits on them. This is something we’ve suffered in the past, and that doesn’t happen in Wales as everyone wants each other to succeed and the elite players won’t be taking the mickey with a win at all costs attitude. Then when someone shines, they may get spotted by international coaches.”

Talking of the international game, what has delighted Nye equally is his aim to bring Wheelchair Rugby League to Ireland as one of the coaches for their national side. The Irish have competed in Wheelchair Rugby League for 12 years, playing in three World Cups and were the first ever winners of the Celtic Cup in 2015, beating Scotland over two legs. However, it’s taken time for the sport to actually be played in Ireland.

“We did an open session first in Belfast for people around Ireland to come and have a look,” he said. “There was a try-out on the back of that, an Ireland session and then the first ever competitive match in Ireland. We now want clubs to come out of these sessions. As you know in Wales, a league generates more interest and higher intensity when it comes to international level.

“We’ve had great support from Disability Sport NI. They’ve given us eight sports wheelchairs that they had in a lock-up somewhere and said: ‘Do what you like with them’. It really has been positive.”

The Welsh have won every Celtic Cup since they entered the fold in 2016, but last year’s tournament in Edinburgh saw Ireland and Wales draw 30-30, and after Wales beat Scotland by more points than the Irish, a second Celtic Cup crown slipped from their heads.

So, could home support see Ireland win the gruelling three-match one-day tournament for the first time since it became this format?

“The Celtic Cup will be a big eye-opener for a lot of people,” Nye believes. “At the moment in Rugby League Ireland, they’ve been wondering where we need to go with Wheelchair Rugby League in the country and we’ve been telling them that we have to have Wheelchair Rugby League in Ireland.

“It’s quite a big tournament to start with. Normally you’d go with a friendly, but we’ve gone straight in with the Celtic Cup, which is one the biggest competitions in the sport. If we can win the tournament, it’ll be fantastic for promotion of the sport in Ireland.”

With England and France wanting to expand the number of sides they want to play, there has been some talk of a Celtic Nations side, but Nye believes that could be a step backwards.

“We’ve the Welsh League, there’s also the Scottish League, we’re hoping for an Irish League. Why would we want to come together as an international side? Perhaps the winners of the Celtic Cup could take on England and France in the autumn, that would be better. Yes, we all want to beat England and France, but wouldn’t it be good if that eventually came from one international side that we’re developing through domestic leagues and the Celtic Cup?”

The 2024 Celtic Cup takes place on Saturday, June 9th at the University of Galway. More information on kick-off times will appear soon on each nation’s website.

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

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