Preview of the London Paralympic Wheelchair Rugby Teams
At this year’s London 2012 Paralympics, the most popular sport is bound to be wheelchair rugby. Sports fans in the United Kingdom are already rugby-mad, and they’ve embraced wheelchair rugby in the lead-up to the Games.But besides hard hits, what can wheelchair rugby fans expect from teams at the London 2012 Paralympics?
For starters, stiff competition. In the past, the USA and Canada dominated the wheelchair rugby scene. At this year’s Canada Cup International Wheelchair Rugby Tournament, however, the top six teams played each other to within only a few points. In fact, the legendary USA team, (which has won nearly every Paralympic gold medal in the history of the sport), was upset by Team Japan. The stage is set for an exciting Paralympic Games.
Here’s what to expect from each team:
Australia: Australia finished second at the 2010 World Wheelchair Rugby Championships and is gunning for the top spot. Their not-so-secret weapon: Ryley “The Battman” Batt, who is widely considered to be the best player in the world. In years past, Batt had to do most of the dirty work, but the addition of heavy hitter Chris Bond has taken some of the pressure off.
Belgium: Team Belgium is the only national team that doubles as a club team. Because the country is so small, the team is able to practice together every week, giving them unmatched chemistry. After failing to qualify for the 2008 Beijing Paralympics, Team Belgium has worked its way back and is currently ranked 7th in the world. They’ll be looking to better their 7th place finish at the 2010 World Wheelchair Rugby Championships and they’ll be drawing on the help of 2010 World Wheelchair Rugby Championship All Star Lars Mertens to do so.
Canada: Team Canada has medaled in eight of the ten international events in the history of the sport and is consistently ranked in the top three in the world. Their best finish—gold at the 2002 World Championships—was caught on tape in the Academy award-nominated documentary “Murderball.” After suffering a disappointing fifth-place finish at the 2010 World Wheelchair Rugby Championships, Team Canada will look to prove that they still belong on top of the podium. Expect a well-rounded squad that can switch lineups with ease.
France: After an impressive performance at Zone Qualifiers, France burst on to the world scene by qualifying for the 2012 London Paralympics and is currently making its mark on the international wheelchair rugby world. The main weapon in their arsenal: former wheelchair basketball star Ryadh Sallem. Sallem was a staple of the French wheelchair basketball national team for nearly 20 years and he’s got unparalleled speed, experience and leadership.
Great Britain: Great Britain has consistently been one of the top 4 teams in the world, placing 4th at both the 2008 Paralympics and 2006 World Wheelchair Rugby Championships. Though they’re currently ranked 6th, Great Britain has been training hard to put on a show for the home crowds at the 2012 London Paralympics. Watch out for new big man Aaron Phipps.
Japan: Thanks to the skills of former wheelchair basketball player Daisuke Ikezaki and the speed of the two “Shins,” (Shin Nakazato and Shin Shimakawa), Japan shocked the international wheelchair rugby community when they improved upon their 7th-place ranking to claim the bronze medal at the 2010 World Wheelchair Rugby Championships. At the recently Canada Cup International Wheelchair Rugby Tournament, they once again outperformed expectations by handing the USA their first defeat in many years. Will this upstart team prove at the Paralympics that their hot streak is no fluke?
Sweden: Team Sweden is a young team, but a combination of speed and aggressiveness has them climbing up the international ranks quickly. They jumped to 4th place at the 2010 World Wheelchair Rugby Championships and now are eager for a spot on the podium. 2012 will be their first Paralympic appearance since 2000. Heavy hitter Tobias Sandberg is an athlete to watch on this squad.
USA: America has long been a powerhouse in the sport of wheelchair rugby, winning gold medals at 7 of the 9 major international tournaments. In fact, in the 30-year history of the sport, the USA has only lost on the international stage a handful of times. One such defeat was captured in the Academy Award-nominated documentary “Murderball,” when the USA was ousted from the finals of the 2004 Paralympics by Team Canada. At the recent Canada Cup, the USA was missing some players due to illness or injury. They’re back to full health, and they’re looking to prove that their recent loss to Japan was a fluke.