By Bea Asprey
JUMPING OUT of my skin while mid-conversation with Harlequins’ Chief Executive is not usually part of the plan but two wheelchairs have just collided at speed with a punchy crack, and fortunately David Ellis himself has reacted in the same way. Simultaneously we turn to watch the wheelchair rugby practice game continue, he with a paternal glance over at his prize first-team players, me out of fascination for a sport I’ve never seen played live before.
This wheelchair rugby session, involving Quins and Team GB wheelchair rugby players, meeting for the first time on court, was arranged this week at Surrey Sports Park to showcase Harlequins’ new official partnership with Great Britain Wheelchair Rugby (GBWR). It’s a partnership that has evolved naturally; GBWR chairman Kevin Aitchison and paralympic athlete Kylie Grimes are big fans of the London-based Premiership club, while Mike Brown, Chris Robshaw and George Robson fell in love with the sport, affectionately known as ‘murderball,’ when they went to watch it live during London 2012.
Brown was named GBWR’s first ambassador earlier this year, and though he was unable to take part in the session this week, he said: “When I watched wheelchair rugby at London 2012 I was taken aback by how physical and skilful the players are. It’s a fast-paced game by nature, and I love it for all the same reasons I love rugby union.
“I’ve had a go playing before. The hardest thing is manoeuvering the chair, while seeing space and passing a ball at the same time!”
Brown will be on hand to help raise awareness of the sport, though it is hoped the link up will be beneficial for both organisations. Quins CEO David Ellis said: “We want to expand our rugby family, and build on the community work our Foundation is doing. We’re still yet to work out what this partnership will look like in reality, but we believe in sport for all and think there are lots of opportunities for both our organisations.
“We can help by lending facilities, and there will be lots of learning from both sets as Conor O’Shea and the players can be on hand to offer coaching and skills tips, and learn some in return.”
GBWR will compete in the World Wheelchair Rugby Challenge next year, and this team is as ambitious as Brown’s England who will, of course, host the rugby world at the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Grimes, Team GB’s only female paralympian who has been playing wheelchair rugby for five years says: “We’re around fifth in the world at the moment. We’re about to go to America and train with them, the best team in the world. The top three are Australia, Canada and the USA, and we need to be playing these teams if we’re to improve.
“London 2012 was the best experience of my life. Coming out onto the court to the crowd roaring, with the British public cheering us on, was an amazing feeling.
“I enjoy playing with the guys. There’s a lot of testosterone that flies around! But they’re just so competitive, and I’m exactly like that too. We’ve become like a big familiy and all the guys are lovely, they treat me like a sister.”
Glaswegian Mike Kerr, who became captain this season, started playing wheelchair rugby in 2001, a year after he dived into the shallow end of a swimming pool, an accident which left him paralysed. He said: “I’m very proud and priviledged to be playing wheelchair rugby for Team GB. The British public made London 2012, the atmosphere was amazing.
“The game has evolved since I started playing, it’s faster and the hits are harder, and it’s now played at a higher tempo. It’s just like rugby union, which has progressed from amateur to professional sport. Since the paralympics, we’ve attracted more interest and support from fans which is great.
“We’ve got a big year ahead of us, we’re off to Alabama this weekend, and it’s an honour to be associated with Harlequins.”
Thinking of trying wheelchair rugby? Grimes says: “Come and give it a go! It can look daunting because of the collisions, but lower body injuries are so rare because you’re protected by the chair. You don’t realise how much fun it is until you’ve tried it!”
Meet Kylie Grimes, Team GB’s only female paralympian, below!