Nathan Bragg and Arley McNeney give us the lowdown on what to expect from the Wheelchair Rugby competition at the London 2012 Paralympic Games, including players to watch for each of the eight teams.
Wheelchair rugby is set to be the most popular sport at the Paralympic Games with fans in the United Kingdom having truly embraced the sport in the run-up to London 2012.
The competition, which runs from Wednesday to Sunday at the Basketball Arena, is set to be fierce with the margins between the top six teams at this year's Canada Cup International Wheelchair Rugby tournament being only a few points.
Throw in the fact that Japan stunned the powerhouses of USA - who have won three of the four Paralympic gold medals and rarely lose - and the stage is set for an exciting competition.
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USA (#1 SEED)
The Americans have long been a powerhouse in wheelchair rugby, winning gold medals at seven of the nine 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, but now back to full strength they will be looking to prove their loss to Japan was a fluke.
Players to watch:
Will Groulx: Considered by many as one of the best mid-pointers in the world, expect to see Groulx often in the USA’s line-ups. His speed and reach allow him to match up with higher class players confidently, and he’s a vocal leader. Groulx is capable of lighting up the scoreboard while flashing his opponents his trademark smile as he pushes by them.
Nick Springer: A defensive animal, watch for Springer to lock down attacking threats. Excellent side-to-side agility and high hitting power are some of his major attributes. You’ll hear his voice from before the tip-off all the way until the final whistle.
AUSTRALIA (#2 SEED)
They finished second at the 2010 World Wheelchair Rugby Championships and will be gunning for top spot at London 2012. Australia's not-so-secret weapon is Ryley “The Battman” Batt, who is widely considered to be the best player in the world. In years gone by Batt had to do most of the dirty work, but the addition of heavy hitter Chris Bond has taken some of the pressure off him.
Players to watch:
Ryley Batt: “The Battman” is widely considered to be the best player in the world. His speed and raw power is unmatched. A real heavy hitter, he causes teams problems at both ends of the floor and it takes double and occasionally triple teams to contain him. If the Paralympics had an MVP, he would be a favourite, but there is plenty of rugby left to play.
Ryan Scott and Naz Erdem: These two 0.5s are veteran members of the Australian team and will be integral to the success of a high-low line-up. They’ll do the dirty work to create a path for Chris Bond and Batt. Their performances may not show up in the score box, but their contributions will be huge for the Australians going forward.
JAPAN (#3 SEED)
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 seventh-place ranking to claim the bronze medal at the 2010 World Wheelchair Rugby Championships. At the recent 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?
Players to watch:
Daisuke Ikezaki: One of the top scorers at the 2010 World Wheelchair Rugby Championships, Ike - as he’s known - will be Japan’s likely counter to players such as Great Britain's Aaron Phipps. Ike possesses superb speed and quickness, and will hook up with one of Japan’s two Shins. As explosive as they come in transition, Ike will sure be a handful for teams.
The Shins: Japan boast a pair of Shins in Shin Nakazato and Shin Shimikawa. Both have experience at the highest level and will be weapons for Japan, whether they’re scoring goals or attacking the ball. A nice 1-2 punch when they’re paired together. Either of them may also slide alongside Daisuke Ikezaki as well.
SWEDEN (#4 SEED)
Team Sweden is a young team, but a combination of speed and aggressiveness has them climbing up the international ranks quickly. They jumped to fourth 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 Sydney in 2000. Heavy hitter Tobias Sandberg is an athlete to watch on this squad.
Players to watch:
Mikael Wahlberg: The best 0.5 at the 2010 World Wheelchair Rugby Championships, Wahlberg is a key part of Sweden’s high-low line-up and has a phenomenal inbound for a player of his classification. Possessing great court speed, he is one of the leaders of the Swedish team and definitely someone to watch.
Tobias Sandberg: Sweden’s quickest player, Sandberg is also a great scorer. A key player on Sweden’s European Championship run and a solid performer at the 2010 World Wheelchair Rugby Championships. Look for him to challenge the group's high-pointers and lay a few guys out.
CANADA (#5 SEED)
Team Canada has medalled in eight of the 10 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 Championships, Team Canada will be looking to prove they still belong on top of the podium. Expect a well-rounded squad that can switch line-ups with ease.
Players to watch:
Trevor Hirschfield: The Canadian 1.0 is known as one of the best low-point players in the world and should pop a few opponents’ tyres by the end of pool play. Possesses great speed for a 1.0 combined with an improving inbound and can use freakishly long arms to disrupt passes. He should be a feature on a few Canadian line-ups.
David Willsie: The co-captain is still going strong into his forties and brings near unmatched experience to the Canadian team. He still has great pace, and you can count on him to make the right play, whether it’s a goal, a pass, or a pick and roll. Look out for Willsie when Canada opts to go with a balanced line, as that’s what he brings to the floor.
GREAT BRITAIN (#6 SEED)
Great Britain has consistently been one of the top four teams in the world, placing fourth at both the 2008 Paralympics and 2006 World Wheelchair Rugby Championships. Though they’re currently ranked sixth, Great Britain has been training hard to put on a show for the home crowds at the 2012 London Paralympics. Watch out for their new big man Aaron Phipps.
Players to watch:
Aaron Phipps: The mobile 3.5 has been a catalyst for the British attack of late and will certainly look to come out hot to light up the scoreboard. He combines great straight-line speed with near unmatched agility. He previously completed marathons and will be looking to make his mark on home turf.
Jonathan Coggan: A veteran of the British team and one of the world’s premier 0.5s, look for Coggan to be disrupting opposing players and paving a clear path for his attacking players, including Phipps. After finishing just outside of the medals at the past two Paralympics, Coggan will have added motivation to get onto the podium in London.
BELGIUM (#7 SEED)
The only national team that doubles as a club team. This gives them unmatched chemistry because, with the country being so small, the team is able to practice together every week. After failing to qualify for the 2008 Beijing Paralympics, Team Belgium has worked its way back and is currently ranked seventh in the world. They’ll be looking to better their seventh place finish at the 2010 World Wheelchair Rugby Championships and they’ll be drawing on the experience of Lars Mertens.
Player to watch:
Lars Mertens: Regarded as one of the best 3.5s in the world, Mertens is certainly one of the best players in Europe. His speed and ability to change direction allow him to get up and down the court at a very fast pace for an easy score. He scored 172 goals at the 2010 World Wheelchair Rugby Championship.
FRANCE (#8 SEED)
After an impressive performance in the Zone Qualifiers, France burst onto the world scene by qualifying for the 2012 London Paralympics and are currently making their mark on the international wheelchair rugby world. The main weapon in their arsenal is former wheelchair basketball star Riadh Sallem. A staple of the French wheelchair basketball national team for nearly 20 years, Sallem has got unparalleled speed, experience and leadership.
Player to watch:
Riadh Sallem: A former member of the French national Wheelchair Basketball team, Sallem has great power in his push and range in his pass. He is one of many 3.5s who will be making an impact at the London 2012 Paralympics, and he will most likely be France’s primary ball-handler and goal-scorer.
For all the latest news, fixtures and results from the Paralympics competition, visit the official International Wheelchair Rugby Federation website www.iwrf.com.
Player Quotes of Support
“More than anything, Sevens embodies the Olympic ideals of camaraderie, fair play and respect on and off the field of play.” – Shane Williams, Wales
“You play sport at the highest level to challenge yourself to be the best that you can possibly be and to compete with the best from all over the world, and what better stage to do that on than at the Olympics?” – Sue Day, England
“Going to the Commonwealth Games was amazing and to have the chance to go to the Olympics would be right up there with anything you could possibly dream of doing in sport.” – Tamati Ellison, New Zealand
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