Wheelchair Rugby: Southeast Asia Update
By Andy Barrow
Although I retired from Wheelchair Rugby in 2012, I keep an eye on what’s happening and particularly enjoy seeing how our sport is developing around the world. Lately, my work as a speaker and mentor has taken me to a few far-flung destinations so I guess it was inevitable that my past and present careers would eventually collide.
My wife and I have always loved Asia so when we first started expanding our business outside of the UK, it was always going to be this part of the world that we focused on. Earlier this year, we put together a tour that saw us visit Singapore and Hong Kong among other places.
The story of the Singapore Wheelchair Rugby is a really cool one. Basically, a group of disabled people got together last year and decided that they wanted to play Rugby and BOOM – the National team was born!
Originally, we had no Wheelchair Rugby plans in Singapore, but the day we arrived, I received an email from Disability Sport Singapore to ask if I’d have attend a training session with the newly formed team. Training was on Friday but earlier that week, I was then lucky enough to meet a few members of the team at a British Chamber of Commerce event that I spoke at.
It’s always great to chat with fellow players and I loved hearing about their experiences and answering numerous questions about the game and my time playing. Their enthusiasm was infectious and got me really excited for the forthcoming training session.
Friday evening came around and I arrived at the Singapore Sports Hub to find a very eager group of players as well as a choice of chairs to play in. The chairs were made in Indonesia and my initial thoughts were that they were better than the first one I ever jumped in back in 1998. That said I’ve certainly become spoiled over the years so sitting in anything other than my own chair was going to be an experience!
I chose the narrowest one I could find and so opted to be a low-pointer for the evening. A pair of gloves and a neoprene strap later and I was ready to roll. Again, a few less items of kit than I’m used to but I think it’s worth mentioning this to show just how lucky many of us are to have the exact chair/gloves/straps that we need.
All eyes were now on me so I ran a quick warm-up and showed the team a few drills before getting into some gameplay. As tempting as it was to start breaking the game down, I wanted to watch everyone play.
The team has a good mix of players with a range of disabilities and varying classifications. They also have a number of friends and volunteers who also join in to facilitate a really good session.
I’m a firm believer that in order to progress to a high level in anything, you need to be passionate about it and seeing how much fun everyone was having reminded me of how I felt when I first started playing. I love the fact that the sport that changed my life is doing the same for others in more and more countries.
This group of players has had great support from the Singapore Disability Sports Council in terms of training facilities and chairs. However, it’s expertise in the game where they’re lacking most so I’d urge anyone who finds himself or herself nearby to drop in on them – You’ll have a great time!
After leaving Singapore, the next stop for us was Hong Kong. I had a number of engagements there as part of my role as an ambassador during Sevens week and I’m happy to say that this time, Wheelchair Rugby was part of the plan.
As part of the HKRU Community Foundation’s “Tackling Barriers Through Sport” initiative, I was asked to run a Wheelchair Rugby demo as part of a series of inclusive sessions at the fan zone in the centre of the city.
If you thought the team in the Singapore was new, they seemed like veterans compared with the players in Hong Kong that were trying the game for the first time. Inclusive Rugby & Child Welfare Officer, Stuart Gunn, attended the IWRF’s 2016 clinic in Bali and brought back two chairs with him. I donated a third but this still wasn’t enough, so luckily, a few of the local basketball team came along to join in with their chairs.
In addition to this, we enlisted the help of my fellow ambassadors, Waisale Serevi, Ben Gollings and Jean de Villiers – all legends of the 7-aside game – to sparkle a bit of stardust on the demo. As I took the court (in my day chair!!!), I thought back enviously to the low-point chair that I used in Singapore the week before and once again realised how lucky I was to have found the sport when I did.
I put up a brave fight against the Para’s and the now distinctly un-legendary legends, but eventually the heat and astro-turf got the better of me and I retreated to the sidelines to give a running commentary to the passing spectators. The demo was hugely enjoyable and we managed to get a few potential players in chairs with the sizeable crowd looking on.
All too soon, our slot came to an end but I’m very happy to say that over the course of the demo, we generated a significant amount of interest from everyone in the fan zone as well as several media outlets.
Both of these events in Southeast Asia were enormous fun to be a part of and I have huge respect for the men and women who are just starting out on their Wheelchair Rugby journeys. These people are pioneers in their countries, playing for the love of the game and paving the way for countless more like them.
I know I keep coming back to this, but I can’t help wonder how my life would have turned out if I hadn’t found Wheelchair Rugby so soon after my accident. I learned so much more than the game in those early days and will always be thankful to those who gave their time to help me.
If you do ever get the chance to visit places where the game is still in it’s infancy, make the effort to seek these players and teams out. You can’t imagine how much they’ll value just a couple of hours of your time!
….And very lastly, know that you don’t have to do this just for others - You are allowed to enjoy yourself at the same time. Do it, and do it because you love our amazing game!
To find out more about our work in Asia, take a look at my blog here: http://andybarrow.co.uk/category/blog
You can email Andy at