Tom Halliwell excited to play on Copper Box stage as England start campaign

TOM HALLIWELL says it will be a “‘pinch me’ moment” to lead out England at the Copper Box as they begin their World Cup challenge this week.

The wheelchair game is set for its biggest ever stage, not only as part of the main tournament for the first time, but playing matches at bigger venues and with terrestrial TV coverage on the BBC.

England begin their campaign against Australia on Thursday (November 3, kick-off 7.30pm) at the Copper Box, an iconic London 2012 venue which hosts every Group A match.

“We’ve all been round to have a look at it,” England captain and Leeds Rhinos star Tom Halliwell told League Express.

“All the crowd are right on the pitch, so it will generate a lot of noise. I remember playing in front of 500 people and it was the same, all the noise and it’s so loud and gets you going. I can only imagine what it’s going to be like in front of 7,000 people. 

“All the boys are looking forward to it; it’s going to be a ground-breaking event for Wheelchair Rugby League. That will be the highest-ever attended game, I believe. It’s massive and we’re all excited for it.

“I’ve been around a few times thinking ‘come November 3rd, this is going to be packed with England fans screaming.’ It’s one of those ‘pinch me’ moments. 

“I remember playing this sport a couple of years ago on Facebook Live, and now we’re on BBC Two and filling out the Copper Box. It’s crazy to think how far this game has come so far. 

“I’m proud to be on this journey with it because I’m forever in debt to this game.

“The real win from this would be inspiring the next generation.”

Winning the World Cup would help in that aim, of course, and England are among the favourites, especially after beating holders and world number one-ranked nation France in a mid-season Test.

“I genuinely believe that if we’d the World Cup last year, I don’t think we’d have won it, whereas this year I think we can,” said Halliwell.

One reason is the increase competitiveness of the domestic game, which he says has been “the hardest year of Wheelchair Rugby League that I’ve played”.

Halliwell was part of the squad in the last World Cup in 2017, when England were beaten by hosts France in the final.

He says he has good and bad reflections on the tournament, having found his game time limited, but harbours the same desire as his team-mates to put right the wrongs despite not playing in the final himself.

“There’s still a bit of hurt and fire in our bellies from losing in ’17,” he said.

“I was a young, fresh 18-year-old playing in a World Cup over in France, getting booed by all the French fans, but it was a great experience. I learned a lot of lessons over there. 

“I only got 56 minutes in that tournament playing-wise so it motivated me to be a mainstay in this England squad. 

“Now captaining the side, I look back on the 2017 World Cup and think that’s what made me; that struggle, having that adversity not playing. I’ve worked really hard since and now I’m the captain.”

The aim is to return to the final, being played this year at Manchester Central on November 18, but for now England are taking each game as they come.

Spain (Sunday, November 6) and Ireland (November 9) are also blocking their path to the double-header semi-finals in Sheffield but all focus is on Australia.

Halliwell said: “It’s one of the biggest rivalries in the world. They’ll come out firing, they’re going to be strong and powerful. They’re not going to be scared. 

“They’ll try to hit us with everything and we just need to stick to what we know and I think we’ll get through it. 

“I watched the State of Origin that was played over there this year and it was a very high-quality game with a lot of skill and a lot of hits. I’m expecting the same from them. They’ve got world-class athletes in that team.”

* Read a full preview to the wheelchair tournament in this week’s edition of League Express.