WHEN the USA were put forward for a place in this year’s wheelchair World Cup, there was just one slight problem – they had no team.
Two years on, they were victorious in their first ever match last Friday, beating an established Scotland side in their World Cup opener to complete a remarkable journey.
Wheelchair Rugby League had only been played in the States for the first time a year before Geoff Mason, an Australian former player with Newtown Jets and Penrith Panthers in the 1970s and now based in South Carolina, was invited to establish a team.
“I had not seen wheelchair Rugby League. I didn’t have any idea what the concept was,” said Mason.
“I watched video of England and France and the more I watched, the more passionate I got.
“We started try-outs, we had two guys turn up for the first try-out. We slowly built until we were able to select from about 20-25 people.
“We’ve had a couple of domestic wheelchair Rugby League games, but rugby union is not even known in America, never mind Rugby League. We’ve come a fair way.”
The majority of Mason’s World Cup squad have backgrounds in wheelchair basketball, including the captain, Jeff Townsend.
“I had roughly a 25-year career in basketball, I gave it up five or six years ago but I’m still part of it and coach a junior team in South Carolina,” said Townsend.
“Andy Lucas (who was behind the first Wheelchair event in Columbia, South Carolina in 2019), Juan Jasso our general manager, and coach Geoff approached me and asked if I’d be willing to come down and try it out and see how we go.
“It’s an absolutely amazing game. It’s faster-paced than it seems on TV and there’s a lot more physical contact.
“We’ve been playing for two years against each other in practice but it’s a different level of intensity on an international stage.
“Two years ago we had no players. To grow from no players to the athletes that we had to select from is quite an accomplishment. We’ve pulled together as a team.”
Their squad also has players with backgrounds in sports including lacrosse, while their one able-bodied player, Micah Stewart, represented the USA in rugby union at youth level.
They were also boosted by the addition of Wigan Warriors player Matt Wooloff, who only joined the team for the first time at the beginning of last week.
Wooloff apart, the Eagles squad prepared hard for their World Cup bow with regular training sessions, but arrived in England as an unknown quantity to both opponents and themselves.
“I didn’t quite know what to expect,” said Mason following last week’s 62-41 victory over Scotland in Sheffield.
“We hadn’t played any competitive games apart from scrimmages ad nauseam against each other. We hadn’t played a competitive team.
“I thought we had the ability, the speed and the knowledge to do well but I didn’t think we might pull this one off.”
The USA now face Wales today (Monday, kick-off 7.30pm) and victory would earn them progression from Group B and into the last four.
“Notwithstanding the challenge that Wales will give us, if we could make the semi-finals, it would be massive,” added Mason.
“We’re generating a lot of support in the United States. The game will take a while (to grow) but getting to the semi-finals will be huge.”