Steelers are Team to beat in Denmark
By Rebekka Wake
The Australian wheelchair rugby team will be the team to beat next week at the Denmark International Challenge, despite not having played a single game since last year’s Paralympic gold medal match.
With the world’s top seven teams due to play as well as host nation Denmark, Australia can expect a fierce fight from London silver and bronze medallists Canada and the USA as they look to exact revenge on the Paralympic gold medallists.
“The US and Canada are the hardest teams in world,” said newly appointed co-captain, Ryley Batt.
“We’ve got to go out all guns blazing and ruin their confidence right at the start, boost our own confidence and get some wins on the board.”
Fellow co-captain Jason Lees agrees, pointing out that Australia’s number one world ranking is at stake.
“We need to win this to keep our number one ranking. We’ve got to protect that. It’s taken a long time to get it and we don’t want to lose it so we have to be the best team in the world,” said Lees.
With the Danish city of Odense set to host the Wheelchair Rugby World Championships next year, head coach Brad Dubberley says the test event will be a good chance for the team to blow out some cobwebs in time for the resumption of the international competition calendar.
“It’s been 10 months since London, that’s a fair amount of time between games,” said Dubberley.
“It’ll be great to check out the whole venue and play internationally again. The team’s been back full swing into training and if things go to plan, we should be able to continue our dominance and set the benchmark for where every team wants to be.”
The Steelers won their first ever Paralympic gold medal in London last year after more than a decade of chasing the coveted number one position. The team was completely dominant, winning every quarter of every game. They defeated Canada 66-51 in the final.
“In London we prepared and peaked perfectly. It was the best rugby we’d ever played. But that doesn’t really matter now because we’re 10 months on and have to do it all over again,” said Lees.
There will be a few new faces on the team following the retirements of veteran Greg Smith and Cody Meakin, with 2.5 player Curtis Palmer and 0.5 player Michael Ozanne making their Australian debuts. The addition of Palmer in particular is a major coup for the team, with the mid-pointer having represented New Zealand in wheelchair rugby at the Atlanta, Sydney, Athens and Beijing Paralympic Games.
“Having Curtis involved has made the team even stronger than it was before,” said Dubberley.
“He’s a very dominating player and one of the best 2.5 players in the world which will make us stronger as a result.
“Since the Games, we’ve had lots of new athletes pushing for Australian selection so now we have 18 players in the squad, which is pretty big. Some of the new guys will be important to the team come Rio so it’s critical that we give them the playing experience and mould them as players now and over the next two years.”
Batt believes the tournament will be a solid marker for how Australia, the USA and New Zealand are playing ahead of the Tri-Series in Sydney in September. It will be the first time the US has ever come to Australia outside a Paralympic Games and will be a major event for Australia in the lead up to the Asia Oceania Regional Championships in November.
“Some players have retired from the US team so they’ll have some new guys in there but we can’t knock them, they’re always going to be good,” said Batt.
“I’m really looking forward to it. It’s always great to play in Australia.”
The team will play in Denmark from 4-10 June before heading to Darwin for a training camp in the lead up to the Tri-Series in Sydney from 17-20 September.
Article courtesy of Australian Paralympic Committee