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  • The only full contact wheelchair sport in the world
  • An invasion and evasion sport...
  • Actively played in 26 countries with more in development
  • Wrecking wheelchairs around the world since 1977
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13 February 2017

Singapore wheelchair rugby athletes at home in rough sport

Played between two teams of four each, wheelchair on wheelchair contact is a key part of the sport. Photo: Nadarajan Rajendran/TODAY
By Teo Teng Kiat

 

SINGAPORE — The sound of metal crashing against metal echoes around the almost-empty sports hall as eight men go at one another furiously with chairs.

 

The chase is end to end, but this is not a street brawl. Rather, it is an enthralling game of wheelchair rugby.

 

Played between two teams of four each, wheelchair on wheelchair contact is a key part of the sport that was once known as “murderball”.

 

It makes for a thrilling spectacle and the adrenaline rush keeps the Singapore wheelchair rugby team coming back for more.

 

“It is very exciting, quite similar to (riding) bumper cars,” player Terence Chua told TODAY during a recent training session.

 

The 43-year-old, who has spina bifida, added: “Being wheelchair-bound, there are not many sports I can play, so wheelchair rugby is one where I can get myself moving and it is rather fun.”

 

The team was set up in collaboration with Raja Singh, the vice-president of the Singapore Disability Sports Council (SDSC), and ActiveSG last August.

 

They train every Friday evening at Toa Payoh Sports Hall, with five to six volunteers helping out.

 

Started in 1977 in Canada by quadriplegic athletes seeking an alternative to wheelchair basketball, the sport caters to those who do not have enough strength or mobility to shoot a basketball. Athletes must have some loss of function in both upper and lower limbs, and teams can be mixed-gender.

 

Wheelchair rugby is played in more than 40 countries, with Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore the only South-east Asian nations that have teams.

 

SMASHING STEREOTYPES

 

The 12-strong Singapore team is led by captain Richard Kuppusamy.

 

The 40-year-old also doubles as coach and team members study YouTube videos and other material online to enhance their knowledge.

 

“Wheelchair rugby smashes stereotypes of disabled people in wheelchairs being frail and weak,” said Kuppusamy, who has spina bifida.

 

“In fact, the sport empowers disabled people to become active and do things they might not imagine they could do.”

 

The wheelchairs are specially designed for extra strength, speed, stability and safety. Defensive chairs feature a “picker” to snag opponents, while offensive chairs have armoured wings to deflect hits.

 

Passing is permitted and a try is only valid when a player crosses the opponents’ try line with the ball in possession.

 

Physical contact between players is forbidden, as is striking another wheelchair from behind because of the danger of toppling the opponent over.

 

Sheikh Mohd Danial Bawthan, who joined the team last September, acknowledged the “rough” nature of the sport, but noted players usually abide by rules.

 

“Usually, there aren’t any serious injuries, though we do end up with abrasions,” said the 23-year-old, who has muscular dystrophy.

 

“I get sore muscles, especially my back and triceps, because we do a lot of pushing and turning.”

 

The wheelchairs take plenty of damage, with three to four inner tubes punctured per session, and occasionally, axles get bent too. They cost about S$50 and S$200 respectively to repair.

 

The current batch of nine wheelchairs are on loan from the non-profit Bali Sports Foundation, but the players have plans to buy their own chairs by the end of the year.

 

Each wheelchair costs about S$2,000, with monthly maintenance pegged at S$300.

 

They are currently on the hunt for corporate partners to provide sponsorships for the team.

 

TURNING COMPETITIVE

 

While the team has participated in tournaments such as the The Association For International Sport For All World Sport for All Games, the focus is not on competitive rugby for now.

 

But that could change next year, as they are planning to play regional events this year ahead of their bid to compete at the 2018 Asian Para Games.

 

“Para-sports need not just be for the goal of playing in international tournaments,” said Kuppusamy. “The two goals of building an open team and training for the Para Games work in synergy with each other. We are taking it slow and steady to build the team up as we don’t have the resources in the current programme to sustain a much larger team.

 

“We have to establish ourselves as a credible group of players before we can identify who is willing and able to represent Singapore in an international para games.”

 

Added Danial: “The whole team is working very hard to gather knowledge and experience. Definitely, we hope to represent Singapore (in future).”

 

Official tournaments require players to be classified according to their level of disability while non-classified players, including able-bodied players, can take part in open-class tournaments.

 

There are eight classified Singaporean players currently, with the others acting as sparring partners for the team.

 

“As the open-class players are going to be more physically capable, they will also be harder to beat in a match, therefore improving the skills and tactics that the classified team will need to employ to win,” said Kuppusamy, who is not classified.

 

Getting a venue to train at regularly is also a challenge for the team — which trains at Toa Payoh Sports Hall — faces. Finding space for equipment, and accessibility to public transport are also some of the issues they need to sort out. But the players’ love for the sport is clear judging from the light-hearted banter and camaraderie throughout the three-hour session.

 

“I was previously involved in wheelchair racing and swimming, but I feel wheelchair rugby is where I should be,” said Danial.

 

Summing up the experience, Kuppusamy said: “The interaction that comes from team sport is special. We have a family of players who can support one another on and off the court.”

 

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