Excitement is building in Ireland as the International Wheelchair Rugby Federation’s (IWRF) European Championship qualifiers get underway on Thursday.
From February 7-9, Gormanston College on the outskirts of Dublin, will host the Czech Republic, Italy, the Netherlands and Ireland who are hoping to earn one of the two available spots left at the IWRF European Championship in Antwerp, Belgium, in August.
The IRB enjoys a close working relationship with the International Wheelchair Rugby Federation, having signed a memorandum of understanding in 2010 to work together on matters of mutual interest.
IRB Chairman Bernard Lapasset is backing what he sees as a growing sport.
"Wheelchair Rugby is a successful Paralympic sport and is growing all over the world in terms of participation and popularity thanks to its blend of world-class competition and entertainment," said Lapasset.
"I'm very much looking forward to what promises to be a spectacular competition in Antwerp later this year and an event that promises to springboard the sport to new audiences and fans, and I wish all competitors the very best of luck in Ireland this week."
Irish Wheelchair Association of Sport Director Nicky Hamill is looking forward to the qualifiers.
“We expect all the games to be closely fought and hope to earn one of the qualifying places. In the past the Dutch team has been our biggest challenge. However, over the past few years there has been very little between ourselves and the Czech Republic, as they've always been very competitive games. Italy is relatively new to the game and we have not played them before, but we are taking nothing for granted there either. I suspect they are waiting in the long grass to take a few scalps!” said Hamill.
Wheelchair Rugby was first played in Italy just over two years ago in the Veneto region, the same area where the country’s national Rugby side started 100 years ago. This is the first sanctioned tournament that the Italians have attended, and it will earn them a position on the IWRF world ranking list.
Wheelchair Rugby is a mixed team sport for male and female quadriplegic athletes and is played on a standard basketball court. It combines elements of Rugby, basketball and handball as players compete in teams of four to carry the ball across the opposing team's goal line. Played in four quarters of eight minutes each, the team with more points at the end is declared the winner. Contact between wheelchairs is permitted. In fact, it is an integral part of the sport as players use their chairs to block and hold opponents.