Tackling wheelchair rugby

Words: Alison Spratley | Photos: Various photographers

When it comes to one of the most loved and well-supported sports in South Africa, rugby is right up there. Stadiums are packed, games are televised, supporters around the country proudly wear their team’s colours, and matches are passionately discussed and dissected for weeks thereafter. But as a rugby-loving nation, how many of us are actually aware that wheelchair rugby is played throughout our country and that the athletes play the game with the same heart and passion as our able-bodied rugby players? Sadly, not many.

Originally called murderball, this unique sport combines elements of rugby, basketball and handball. Players compete in teams of four to carry the ball across the opposing team’s goal line. Contact between wheelchairs is permitted - and is in fact an integral part of the sport, as players use their chairs to block and hold opponents.

History of the sport

Wheelchair rugby was invented in 1977 in Winnipeg, Canada, by a group of quadriplegic athletes who were looking for an alternative to wheelchair basketball. They wanted a sport that would allow players, with reduced arm and hand function, to participate equally.

In 1993, with 15 countries participating in the sport, wheelchair rugby was recognised as an official international sport for athletes with a disability and the International Wheelchair Rugby Federation (IWRF) was founded. In 1996, wheelchair rugby was included as a demonstration sport in the Atlanta Paralympic Games before becoming a full medal sport four years later at the Sydney Games. Today, wheelchair rugby is played at an elite level in 20 countries across the globe.

Things you may not know about wheelchair rugby

There are no separate teams for men and women’s competitions, as men and women are classified equal and compete on the same team.

To be eligible to play wheelchair rugby, athletes must have a disability that affects both the arms and legs. Athletes must also be physically capable of propelling a manual wheelchair with their arms. The majority of wheelchair rugby players have spinal cord injuries, which have resulted in full or partial paralysis of the legs and partial paralysis of the arms. Other disability groups represented include polio, cerebral palsy, some forms of muscular dystrophy, dysmelia, amputations, and other neurological conditions, such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

It is easier to play in a lightweight sports-type wheelchair, but beginners to the sport tend to play in a manual wheelchair adapted from wheelchair basketball.

Handling the ball within the rules of International Wheelchair Rugby is extremely important to high-performance athletes. All athletes competing in wheelchair rugby have impaired hand function and make use of specifically designed gloves and glue to assist with wheelchair propulsion and ball handling. A wheelchair rugby team will use up to 5,500 gloves per year!

Wheelchair rugby balls

are specifically engineered and have a foam soft outer layer, assisting athletes with control and ball handling during the game.

The game of wheelchair rugby is constantly adapting and improving with the implementation of new rules and laws, the strides in the athlete’s ability, and new equipment designs, all of which have a major impact on how the game is played across the globe.

How wheelchair rugby assists the greater community

Fortunately, it's common for people with a disability, from grass-roots to elite levels, to participate in sport and physical activity nowadays. Unfortunately, this is not the case in all parts of the world. Whilst there has been progressive and positive change in the quality of life for people with disabilities in many developed countries, this is not reflected in developing countries, including South Africa.

Any physical activity has a key part to play in improving general health and well-being, and the South African Wheelchair Rugby (SA WCR), in the development of wheelchair rugby in South Africa, agrees it has an integral part to play in ensuring successful national team participation at all international competitions.

“People with a disability in developing countries have major barriers to overcome, and I firmly believe that sport does assist in promoting programmes of conflict resolution and reconciliation between sharply divided communities, and aides in achieving common goals,” states Clyde Holland, chairman of SAWCR.

“The contribution we at SA WCR are determined to make, to the overall well-being and upliftment of both disabled and able-bodied people in South Africa, will assist people in all communities and occupations to break barriers of poverty and build activity pathways for people with disabilities. By using sport and physical activity programmes, we can reach wider development goals,” says Holland.

SA WCR is set on one goal, namely the development of wheelchair rugby in all communities to provide a better quality of life for people living with severe disabilities.

By participating in wheelchair rugby, the general health and well-being of participants will improve, as the training and exercise will contribute to better physical- and emotional health. These, however, are not the only benefits it will bring. As strength, endurance, and self-esteem improve by playing wheelchair rugby, this will carry over into tasks of daily living, leading to higher levels of independence in everyday activities. Hence, the belief that participating in wheelchair rugby will enhance the overall quality of life.

To continue to develop the sport, South Africa needs to take advantage of opportunities to compete, to increase its world ranking. With this in mind, SA WCR is determined to establish a focused yet competitive and action-packed four-year programme, filled with endless opportunities to develop skill and improve fitness and technique.

“SA WCR is an affiliated member of the South Africa Rugby Union (SARU), and with support and the securing of strategic partners, we have the potential to achieve Paralympic status,” says Holland.

In addition, SA WCR aims to create awareness of the only full-contact sport code for the more severely disabled athlete, and assist in the transformation of the lives of severely disabled athletes, whilst reaching its goal of participating in the 2016 Paralympic Games.

World championship comes to SA

Wheelchair rugby is one of the sports recognised by the International Paralympics Committee (IPC). Every two years there are continental zone tournaments, which are viewed as development tournaments, as world-ranking points are awarded and, ultimately, qualification for the World Championships and Paralympics is determined.

Mainly due to the lack of funding, the SA WCR National team has been at a huge disadvantage and not competed internationally since 2009. As a result, the team has never qualified for the Paralympic Games.

South Africa is part of the Asia-Oceania zone, which includes Australia, China, Japan, Korea, and New Zealand. This is the most competitive wheelchair rugby zone in the world, which is why SA WCR grabbed the opportunity to host the Asia-Oceania IWRF tournament later this year.

This tournament is an official qualifier for the IWRF World Championships and Paralympic Games and takes place from 16 to 24 November at the LC de Villiers Stadium, University of Pretoria. Teams competing include Australia, New Zealand, and Japan.

Entrance is free and Team South Africa welcomes all to come and support them in their quest to achieve their ultimate goal of qualifying for the
World Championships and Paralympic Games. •


Visit the team’s official website www.sawcr.co.za or Like them on Facebook and get regular updates on the tournament schedule, team profile and more.