The Paralympics event wheelchair rugby may be as tactical as chess, but it’s rather more brutal to play
There is such an almighty clanging, thunking, whirring and shouting that if I didn’t know better I might be tempted to call the police.
I am sitting in a wheelchair. Powering towards me on what looks like a glorified shopping trolley with enormous metal hub caps for wheels is a man with a red Mohican and shoulders like an ox. Considering that Neville Burrell has already told me, with great enthusiasm, “We can’t hit each other. But we can smash the —- out of each other’s chairs. The ideal thing is to half-break one. That’s my favourite part of the sport,” I am very glad that we are on the same side.
“Go on, Victoria,” shouts Neville now. “Get down the other end. Take Nick out. Go on, go at it like they’re really ——- you off.”
I am in Nottingham playing wheelchair rugby, or “murderball” as it used, some might argue more appropriately, to be known.
It’s brutal, it’s fast, it’s intensely competitive and it’s bone-shatteringly full-on. The game combines elements of Formula One (there’s a mechanic with a welding kit and a set of emergency spare wheels on the sidelines); rugby (think: wheelchair ruck); basketball and chess (it is highly tactical). A real adrenalin sport, it’s thrilling to watch – which might explain why tickets for the Paralympics sold out months ago – and, as I discover, exhilarating to play.
It originated in Canada in 1977 when a group of quadriplegics decided they wanted to add a bit of edge to wheelchair basketball.
Today’s rules are that players must have some loss of function in at least three limbs, which means that it’s now open to those with conditions such as cerebral palsy. In practice, though, most – like Neville, who just missed out on a place in the GB squad for the London Paralympics, and Steve Brown, the Captain of the GB team – are survivors of an accident that involved a severe spinal cord injury.
It can be slightly unnerving to watch competitors smashing into each other’s chairs at high speed so hard that they capsize (players are strapped in so they don’t fall out), leaving them stranded upside down like turtles waiting for two nominated assistants to rush on and right them again. But players say that’s a big part of the attraction.
“As soon as I saw this I was like, ‘Wow, they’re hitting each other really hard,’ ” says Neville. He was 24 when a car knocked him off his mountain bike leaving him with a broken neck. “I remember it happening, and hearing the ambulance come, and thinking I was dead. A couple of weeks after that I woke up again.”
Nine gruelling months of rehabilitation in Sheffield Spinal Unit followed. For a man who’d been pretty sporty – “everything from football to martial arts” – the new reality of being paralysed from the chest down, having no finger movement and weak triceps on his left side must have taken some getting used to.
“Yes. It’s a full-on battle. Sometimes I was quite embarrassed about being in a chair. The first time I witnessed this sport I could hardly push a chair. I thought: ‘This isn’t real’. But I started to train. I got smacked about a bit, which was worrying at first. Then the first time I hit someone hard, I moved them. I thought, ‘Wow’. After that I was addicted.”
Wheelchair rugby is a team sport: four players to a side (and 11 in total in the GB squad). It’s played on a court, not with an oval rugby ball but a round volleyball. Goals are scored by carrying the ball over the line at the opposition’s end of the pitch. A team has just 40 seconds in which to score from the moment of gaining possession, which is why there’s so much wheelchair aggro.
“If you can keep a player out for a few seconds it makes a big difference,” says Neville. The same goes for smashing up someone’s chair; equipment fixers have just 60 seconds in which to work, so a good hit will really hamper a side’s chances.
And this is where an extra layer of tactics starts to come in. Each athlete has a point rating based on a medical assessment of their functionality: 0.5 for the least functional, rising to 3.5 for the most. A team of four players cannot have a collective score of more than 8. How you distribute your classifications has a huge effect on play.
“I’m a 1,” says Neville. “So I’ll be the fourth man on the pitch. In an ideal game, I don’t touch the ball.” But he is forced to with me on his team, as even with all my physical advantages, including control of stomach muscles allowing me to lean over for the ball, my passing is far less dexterous than his.
Neville continues: “I’ll push up the court stopping the opposition getting to my ball-handler, so that ideally he can go and score without even trying to pass.”
There are two types of chair, defensive and offensive, costing from around £2,500 to £6,000 for a super-whizzy model. Defensive chairs like Neville’s have a grille at the front designed so it can be rammed up against someone else’s wheel which, if enough strength is deployed, can keep them out of play.
This is where, if you smash into someone hard and fast enough you might flip the chair over. Don’t players worry about injuries?
Neville looks across the room towards two of his team-mates, Alex (a schoolboy trampoline champion who dislocated his neck doing a triple somersault) and Beth (she was injured in a car accident).
“Well, the majority of us have broken our necks already so…”
GB captain Steve Brown once broke his sternum and a few ribs smashing into an opponent’s knees. Part of the problem is that athletes who’ve lost sensation in parts of their body don’t always realise they’ve hurt themselves.
“I believe – I don’t know – but I believe I’ve broken four ribs over the years I’ve been playing,” says Neville. “But you can’t feel it. And in any case we’ll play through pain if we can, because it’s only pain. If you can push through after breaking your neck…”
The Americans are “the team to beat”, according to both Neville and another player, Paul McDerby, a high-pointer who has been training with our squad. “Everyone wants to beat the Americans.” The Australians are also strong. As are the Canadians. So a big battle is predicted for the bronze. GB came fourth in Beijing, and our first match is against the Americans on Wednesday.
It’s going to be fierce. And for the players it’s going to be hot, too. Spinal cord injuries mean people are unable to sweat below the level of their trauma, so water sprays are used for cooling.
“It’s hard work,” says Neville. “But also a real rush.”
It reminds me of that great line in the film Sexy Beast. “It’s the charge, it’s the bolt, it’s the buzz of it all.” Can’t wait. See you at the telly, 2pm on Wednesday.
By Victoria Moore