By Alan Pearey, Rugby World Deputy Editor
THE Great Summer of Sport is drawing to a close and they have saved the best till last. As the London 2012 wheelchair rugby gets underway at the Olympic Park, Team GB are hoping to medal for the first time following fourth-place finishes in the past two Paralympics.
The 11-strong GB squad includes two players who broke their necks on the rugby field. Andy Barrow, from Greenwich, was injured playing for London club Charlton Park in 1997, while Ross Morrison, from Farnborough, suffered the same fate during a match for Portsmouth Grammar School in 1996.
Both men competed at Beijing 2008, Barrow as captain, and have been assisted by grants from the RFU’s Injured Players Foundation. Both, too, are getting married after the Games, Morrison to a former wheelchair rugby referee who was involved in the sport before he was.
A Harlequins fan, Morrison was a highly promising second-row before he suffered his catastrophic injury in a school match. “I got flipped in a tackle and landed on my neck,” he explains. “It was just a regular tackle, one that I’d taken thousands of times, but I landed in a funny way. It was a strange sensation: there was a lot of pain, then it cut out. I realised I’d damaged my nerves in some way. The ref knew it was serious and stopped play. Within 15 minutes I’d been taken to A&E where I received very good treatment.”
Morrison’s spinal cord had been crushed and severed. He was just 16 but the way he dealt with such a devastating blow is an example to us all. Indeed, the mental fortitude shown by all Paralympians is what singles them out from others to have experienced extreme misfortune. A door may have closed but to them another has opened.
“You go through a period (of reflection) but it’s very simple: you either face it or give up,” says Morrison, 33. “Those are the two categories of people. Some adapt and overcome, others give up and won’t engage in life, they stay in and watch TV. I’m an optimistic sort of person. I wanted to go and do something and now I’m playing in the Paralympics – that’s pretty cool!”
While Morrison was undergoing rehab in hospital, the London wheelchair rugby team did a demo that struck a chord with him. “I thought, ‘I can get to play rugby again and hit people again but in a wheelchair!’.” he says.
He went to the Sydney Paralympics in 2000 as a spectator and was inspired by the dream of competing for GB. He started a biochemistry degree at Southampton University but withdrew from the course when he realised that international sport was a full-time commitment.
“I spoke to the GB coach at the time, Neil Ross, and he told me what I needed to do. We set out some targets. Once you’re on the GB squad programme you get all the best advice on strength and conditioning, nutrition etc. The RFU Injured Players Foundation gives massive support to ex-players, with funding for equipment and training.”
Morrison is a 2.5 player – he has no trunk or core muscles but good hands. GB coach Tom O’Connor says his passing ‘out the back door’ is reminiscent of Sonny Bill Williams. “I’m a primary ball-handler, an offensive player. The lowest-function players are just as important because I can’t do what I do without them.”
It’s ten years since he made his GB debut and after near-misses in Athens and Beijing he’s desperate to win a medal at London 2012. Australia and America are regarded as the favourites, with GB, Canada, Sweden and Japan in the chasing pack and France and Belgium outsiders. Britain open against America, the world champions, before facing France on Thursday evening and Japan on Friday in a game that, if matches go to expectation, will determine who joins the USA as semi-finalists from Pool A.
Ask Morrison if he would take a bronze and he hesitates. “Part of me would say yes,” he answers, “but part of me says I want a shot at gold.”