GB Wheelchair Rugby team

British steel: the GB team that competed at London 2012 has been freshened up under new coach Paul Shaw

By Alison Barrow

WHILE THE GB wheelchair players may have had a quiet few months, staff have been working tirelessly behind the scenes to make sure everything is in place for their return. UK Sport and Sport England seem suitably impressed with GBWR chief executive David Pond’s plans to grow the game as between them they’ve provided more than £4m of funding to put their strategic plans in place. This includes the appointment of a new head coach, Paul ‘Tez’ Shaw.

As a former GB wheelchair rugby international and three-time Paralympian (Sydney 2000, Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008), Shaw knows what it’s like to be at the top for the long haul. He has coached West Coast Crash wheelchair rugby club since 2009 and the Irish national team between 2010 and 2011. But despite these accolades, he was still surprised when he got the GB call-up. I was lucky enough to get the first interview with him shortly after he saw his new squad together for the first time.

“I was pretty shocked when I found out. I really didn’t think I’d get the job as I’d heard they’d interviewed some really good candidates,” he says. “Then it sunk in and I realised the enormity of the job I’d been given and felt a bit sick! But it’s such a huge privilege and pretty soon after I couldn’t wait to get started.”

Paul Shaw

Big plans: Shaw is a three-time Paralympian

A huge task maybe, but the GB wheelchair rugby interview panel clearly thought he was up to it. When Shaw retired internationally after Beijing 2008, he fell into coaching almost by accident. But he soon excelled. “Wheelchair rugby is all I’ve known. My body had suffered a lot of wear and tear after playing the game for so long, so I had to stop. What else was I going to do?

“I knew the West Coast Crash team had recently started, so I asked if I could help out at training. It was only meant to be for six weeks; three years later I’m still there!”

The Southport-based Crash became league champions for the first time last year, and it was this experience that gave him the confidence to go for the international coaching job. “It made me think I could do a good job with GB – I saw the vacancy on the website and realised this might be the only time this opportunity comes around, so I had to go for it.”

We start talking about his fellow international coaches, ex-players Brad Dubberley (who coached Australia to gold at London 2012) and James Gumbert (USA bronze-medal coach at London 2012 and golf in Beijing). He’s clearly flattered to be mentioned in the same sentence as these two and as I ask if he feels he could emulate their success, his magnanimous demeanour continues: “Of course I’m nowhere near the heights of James and Brad, but as an ex-player I do feel I have an edge. I like to think if they wanted a home-grown coach then I proved I was the one for the job.”

Despite his relative inexperience at the top level, when he starts talking about the small changes he’s made to the set-up he sounds like he’s been doing the job for years. Maybe it’s something he started thinking about since the disappointing finish at London 2012, where he watched from the stands?

“I think we all needed a bit of a lift after London; maybe a fresh start was needed. The new players who’ve come in have freshened everyone up – there’s a real youthful exuberance within the team now and that’s rubbed off on the senior players.”

He’s reverted back to having a much larger squad, in contrast to the pre-London preference of a smaller, more focused set-up. “It’s good to have choices and I have that with a bigger squad. Having a development squad gives the younger players an insight into being an elite athlete, so if they reach the senior set-up it’s not as much of a shock to their minds and bodies. The dev players’ physiques are already much better than they were. And bringing youth and experience together for training keeps all the players on their toes.”

Aaron Phipps

Retired: high-pointer Aaron Phipps leaves a big hole to fill

One surprising move was to bring back ex-internationals Jason Roberts and Alan Ash, who left the GB set-up in 2010 and 2012 respectively. Was this a backwards move? “Not at all,” says Paul. “I felt I needed more of a mix of youth and experience. You can’t go to a tournament without some experience in the squad. I was gutted when Andy (Barrow), Aaron (Phipps) and Steve (Brown) retired, as I couldn’t wait to work with them, but I had to move on with the players I had.”

So who approached who? “I was the one who made the phone calls. I’d just lost three big players, so needed to bring more experience in. I felt Jason and Ashy still had something in them and luckily they jumped at the chance to get back on board.”

With his team in front of him he can now start to look at what’s achievable, and in the short term Shaw is setting his sights high. “We’ve got some fantastic potential, really good, solid line-ups to choose from, and I want to give everyone the opportunity to show me what they’ve got.

“I’ve been in Paralympic teams where you only have certain players you can rely on. I want every player to be able to rely on everyone. I want them to all have the basic fundamentals, instinctively know the game and every single player around them, so every aspect on- and off-court is second nature to them.”

As for targets, he hopes to make an immediate mark. “This year I want a medal at the Europeans (taking place in Denmark in September). But I think we should constantly be the number one team in Europe again; we’ve been off that top spot for too long now. I want the players to go home with gold and if everything goes well, I believe we can do that.

“I want to bring a brand of rugby we haven’t tried before and I’ve definitely got some ideas. I know we won’t do it (experiment) every single game. It’s hard right now to look to the World Championships in 2014 and beyond as I’ve no idea what players will come in, or rejoin the squad. But I want to give everyone who approaches me an opportunity to really show me what they’ve got. I’ll never shut the door on anyone.”

Time will tell whether GBWR can reclaim the European title and win medals further afield, but with the finance and such a fresh, determined coach behind them, they’ve never had a better chance.

Contact Alison @Alibear1980