By Alison Couldridge
THE GB wheelchair rugby development squad returned home from Prague this week with a very respectable fourth-place finish in the city’s annual Rugbymania tournament.
Ever since the squad and coaching staff was announced a year ago, this was earmarked as the perfect chance to test their metal against some of the best teams that Europe has to offer. The competition included the formidable German team The Rebels and touring ‘all-star’ side European Giants, filled with international players past and present, so the GB players were given a searching examination as to their current proficiency.
And while the players’ inexperience eventually showed, they have a lot to be proud of, not least because two players, Fakrul Islam and Ayaz Bhuta, won the coveted Best in Class awards for a competing 0.5 and 2.5 player respectively.
With almost every player ensuring they had courtside seats to cheer on their club team-mates (and often heroes) at London 2012, there was definitely a sense that they were ‘waiting in the wings’ for their chance to compete on the same stage.
Coach Justin Frishberg says they were itching to start their journeys towards Rio. “They were very hungry to play, but then they were hungry throughout the year to learn, to train, and to become elite athletes,” he said. “So I was never in any doubt of their commitment.”
The development team, or GB Lions as they are known, certainly didn’t disappoint. They comfortably beat all four teams in their pool during the first two days of the three-day tournament, including The Rebels.
But the standard competition format of six games in three days took its toll and by the final day their inexperience began to show. They missed out on a place in the final after losing to Danish Falcons in the crossover game and couldn’t quite overturn The Rebels a second time in the battle for bronze.
Despite not making the podium, Frishberg is more than happy. “Third place was the target but it was always an ambitious one. To get so close is a disappointment, but a minor one compared with the pride in winning the pool by beating The Rebels, who are one of the big boys of European (wheelchair) rugby.
“They exceeded expectations in the pool stages, but experience is a valuable commodity and we didn’t perform as well in the medal games. Tournaments like this are tough mentally, and I’m sure they’ll learn as a group and deliver the consistency you need at the highest levels.”
For GB Lion Luke Twizell, being selected to play at Rugbymania was just what he needed to spur him on. He said: “As I team I thought we played amazing, really well. We caused an upset, beating the Rebels being part of that. Sometimes we struggled with our inexperience, but that is what we went to Prague for, to get the experience of playing the ‘big boys’ in the sport.
“Personally, I did okay. I made some stupid mistakes, like committing a foul when we already had someone in the sin-bin, but I learnt so much even in those few days.”
From next month, the development squad will join with the elite team, where in many ways the competition and learning process will really begin.
Contact Alison @Alibear1980