Northampton Saints and Scarlets at the Lord's Taverners Junior Wheelchair Rugby National Championships 2019 (credit: Anthony Hayton)

Playing the Game and So Much More

Last weekend saw the Lord’s Taverners Junior Wheelchair Rugby National Championships take place at Stoke Mandeville with 50 young people playing across 2 age groups – U14 and U18. This was the first tournament most of the U14s had ever played and they were understandably very excited and a little nervous at the same time. In the U14 final Northampton Saints chalked a win in the final over Scarlets 10-5, whilst Ospreys won over Mapleford Saints 11-8 to take 3rd place. The U18s competition was in a round-robin format, which was undecided until the final game between Ospreys and Mavericks, with Ospreys coming out on top to retain their 2018 title. Mavericks took Silver and Bristol Cubs Bronze.

Our junior wheelchair rugby has come a long way since 2011 when we initiated the first pilot in Glasgow which was managed and delivered by London WRC Head Coach Steve Palmer who at the time commented:

“It’s great to get wheelchair rugby out to the schools and children. We could be building the next generation of GB superstars.”

Steve Palmer – Coach and ex-Paralympian (credit: Anthony Hayton)

Since 2011 we have partnered with a number of organisations including the Richard Langhorn Trust, GLA, BT, the Saracens Foundation, Sport England and currently the Lord’s Taverners charity, all with the aim of providing opportunities for young people to play the game and to feel part of our wheelchair rugby community. It was great to see our GB athletes sharing good luck messages on social media in the build up to the tournament. We all know how inspiring it is when we are able to have contact with our sporting heroes. I still feel a little in awe when I meet with Mike Brown, Rupert Moon and Jason Leonard – even though they are all part of GBWR, I still feel like an excited small boy when I am around these superstars! All in the GB team are always keen to support junior initiatives and in particular Aaron Phipps and Ayaz Bhuta are busy with many school visits; I am always getting feedback about the fantastic impact they have on those who meet them.

It is easy to underestimate the impact our game can have on the wellbeing and development of individuals. Our strategy has always recognized that wheelchair rugby is more than just a game, but perhaps this is more evident with the junior programme than anywhere. One of the first players to join Northampton Saints Juniors was a young man who has autism. This condition means he finds doing a sport hard because he lacks confidence and coordination. He suffers a lot with pain in his legs with hypermobility syndrome and he was born with talapies. Wheelchair rugby has given him a sport which he loves and he is growing friendships. The coaches understand it takes him longer to learn something new and that by repeating things he learns better. His mother comments that it is critically important for him to have a sport and to be part of a team as this helps him to grow and it enables him to interact with others in a positive way. We have always recognized that disability can be incredibly isolating and so we always want to reach out and bring the game to as many people as we can.

Ospreys volunteers at the Lord’s Taverners Junior Wheelchair Rugby National Championships (credit: Anthony Hayton)

Our Lord’s Taverners programme relies heavily on volunteers and families to support it, and on Stuart McLindon who has a particular gift in the way he is able to create great experiences for a wide range of young people – so a big thank you to all of you.

As a final point on the juniors – I am not sure if you have seen the new Dragons Wheelchair Rugby logo but it is awesome! Well done to the designer! And to David Buttress who I know is giving his attention to the wheelchair rugby in the club, thank you.

RMA Sport National Championships 2019 (credit: Anthony Hayton)

Competition is not just important for juniors, it is the life blood of all sport. We all join clubs to play a game and although from this comes the benefits of being part of a team and social group, it is playing the sport that is main the driver for most of us. That is why we are currently investing a lot of time in reviewing our competition structure to try to improve it and make it less costly for clubs and individuals. Ideally we know that most athletes would like to play more games but also see costs reduce. Last week Martyn Salt presented to a large number of representatives from the clubs. It was great to see all but two of our clubs represented, and to hear the views of those representing their Members – it was a helpful and constructive session. Martyn had already spoken to many club representatives ahead of the workshop as part of his work to consider possible future options but this was an opportunity for everyone to come together and for us all to collectively try to come up with a format which is competitive, enjoyable, affordable and capable of accommodating more teams as we continue to grow the sport. Of the options discussed the one that found the most favour involves moving to a national league structure with 5 teams in each of 2 top divisions and with the third division being regionalized. The sort of ideas discussed were that Divisions 1 & 2 to play round robin weekends over 2 days, so 5 games per weekend – 15 games per season. Regions would play 1 day tournaments. The league structure could build to a championship weekend where all divisions would be represented and promotion / relegation decided. Such a format would also be more attractive to the media and to sponsorship. Having 5 teams in each division would allow for all teams to play each other each weekend and for games to start later on Saturday – this could reduce the cost of venue set up and accommodation for players and officials. Everyone agreed that it was worth taking this option away and working it through in more detail which is what we are now in the process of doing. Meanwhile the 19/20 Super Series will remain as the current format with the aim for any new format to be actioned from the start of the 20/21 season.

David Pond