GB Wheelchair Rugby go into this weekend's Quad Nations in Leicester strengthened by two returning Paralympians, as their coach Paul Shaw tells Rugby World
A big year starts here – GB Wheelchair Rugby primed for Quad Nations
This weekend sees the first of four major tournaments for Great Britain Wheelchair Rugby in 2019 – the King Power Quad Nations. Staged at Leicester’s Morningside Arena, the tournament brings together four of the world’s best teams – GB, Canada, France and world champions Japan – in an action-packed three-day scrap.
GB open the tournament against Canada at 10.30am on Friday 1 March and the gold-medal match starts at 4pm on Sunday.
“For people who haven’t seen the sport before, it will be a real eye-opener to see what Paralympic sport is all about,” says GB coach Paul Shaw.
“We’ve got four teams who play very good, hard, intense rugby. It’s always exciting for any nation to host the world champions and we’ve got a very competitive GB team; we really expect to do well this weekend. We’ve beaten Japan in the last two years, and they’ve beaten us, so it’s about who turns up the day.
“And I really enjoy the fact we get such great support from our friends and family within the rugby world. They come in good numbers to watch this competition.”
The Quad Nations tournament was launched last year to provide a high-quality home-based competition for GB Wheelchair Rugby athletes. USA took gold a year ago, beating Australia 56-55 in the final, and while those nations occupy the top two places in the world rankings, there are plenty of sides chasing their tail.
“The gap is getting closer, as last year’s World Championship in Sydney showed,” says Shaw, a three-time Paralympian. “The final between Japan and Australia was a one-point game, the semi-final between Australia and GB was a two-point game. France defeated Canada, who are No 4 in the world. With the top five teams, it’s one or two goals (difference) either way.”
Shaw took over straight after London 2012 and has been steadily building depth. The GB squad for this weekend includes three survivors from those London Games in Jonathan Coggan, Aaron Phipps and Kylie Grimes – the latter two having returned to the fray in the past 12 or so months.
“Aaron and Kylie both pursued other directions after London. Aaron went off and had a family, got his career underway, his public speaking. Kylie went on to do athletics and was at Rio in 2016. She competed in the Club throwing event (finishing fourth).
“We approached Aaron to see if he would be interested in coming back. He’s decided to come back on board and has really excelled.
“As for Kylie, we were looking at where we could get some extra marginal gains in our game and she opens up some new line-ups for us because of her (low) classification.”
Phipps was 15 when he contracted meningitis and blood poisoning, and he lost his legs and most of his fingers due to septicaemia. In 2016 he summited Mount Kilimanjaro, spending the last four days of the ascent on his hands and knees because his off-road wheelchair could no longer cope with the rough terrain.
Grimes was 18 when she hit her head on the bottom of a swimming pool during a party in 2006. She was left paralysed from the chest down but like Phipps has gone on to play international sport and serve as an inspiration to many.
Grimes and Japan’s Kae Kurahashi are the only women involved in this weekend’s Quad Nations, but Saturday (6.15pm) sees an all-women demonstration match involving players from across the British leagues.
“What we’ve done as a national game is encourage women to play the game,” says Shaw. “I think women really want to participate in the sport and the number of female players in the three divisions has definitely gone up.
“And also from what I’ve seen in the youth programme, there’s a lot of young females playing the game and really enjoying it. Hopefully when they’re old enough they can come up into the senior ranks.”
After the Quad Nations, GB compete in another four-team event in America in May, set to also feature USA, Japan and Australia.
In August, GB defend the European Championship title they won two years ago in Germany. This time Denmark host the event and the top two qualify for next year’s Paralympics in Tokyo, so it’s the principal focus of GB this year.
Then, in the wake of the inaugural Rugby Challenge tournament held in London during the 2015 World Cup, Japan will host a similar event for the world’s top eight teams during the 2019 World Cup. “Providing we get the result we want from the European Championship, it will be good preparation for us in Tokyo the following year,” adds Shaw.
A delegation from Japan will be in attendance this weekend as the Mayor of Kitakyushu and other dignitaries visit Leicester. The host city for the Wales team during this year’s World Cup, Kitakyushu has agreed to host the GB Wheelchair Rugby squad for the next two years.
As part of this initiative, the city will provide support for the GB team during training camps ahead of the World Wheelchair Rugby Challenge, the Paralympic Test Event and the 2020 Paralympics. GBWR will support the city with civic engagements in schools and businesses, and will open their doors for citizens of the city to watch GB training sessions.
The Mayor of Kitakyushu will enjoy a tour of Leicester before travelling to the Morningside Arena to watch the Japan v France Quad Nations match on Friday.
The trophy for the Quad Nations champions has been named after Khun Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, the former Leicester City chairman who died in a helicopter crash last October. The Vichai Trophy will be awarded annually to each winner as a long-lasting tribute to the late chairman of King Power.
Tickets for the Quad Nations, on 1-3 March, are not expensive. So if you want to get along this weekend, click here for tickets.