The Gaelic Warriors wheelchair rugby team qualified to compete at the very peak of their game for the first time last week, and are now raring up to head to Sydney to compete on the world stage.
The world championship qualifying tournament win in Switzerland saw them defeat New Zealand, South Korea and Brazil in their group stage. The four-player team then overcame a tough Poland side in the semi-final, and comfortably beat New Zealand for a second time in the final to come out as outright winners.
Wheelchair rugby has been played in Ireland for just over 20 years, and takes place on a basketball court, with a try area at each end. Teams of are of mixed gender, each made up of four players, with each player categorised according to their level of physical disability.
In order to encourage varied participation, teams cannot have a total of more than a certain number of category points, which ensures every team has a balance of more and less physically able players.
Ireland international Alan Lynch has been playing wheelchair rugby since he encountered the sport as part of his rehab, after falling from a tree and breaking his neck as a 14-year-old.
“I play for the Gaelic Warriors [based on Clontarf] and Ireland, and for a team in London, and a German team for a couple of tournaments each every year,” Lynch told the Dublin Gazette.
“It’s become a huge thing in my life. I think it’s important to get past the idea that people with disabilities are fragile,” he explains. “We’re no more fragile than anyone else. A lot of people with disabilities are sheltered from this kind of sport, because Irish people typically put us in cotton wool. It’s important to get past that stereotype.”
The game is fast and physical, though Lynch says you’re no more likely to get hurt than walking down the street, apart from the odd cut and bruise.
Its gameplay is highly strategic: at an international level, teams have secret calls to communicate plays, both attacking and defensive, and carefully curated roles within a team.
It can look spectacular with the game full-contact, and sometimes toppling chairs on impact. The Irish team have modest expectations for Sydney, and Lynch hopes more than anything else that the tournament creates exposure, and attracts new players.
“Realistically, we’re not going to win. We’d be very happy with a top six or eight finish, depending on who we draw, I think, though we haven’t really talked about it yet,” he explains.
“The main difference is strength in depth. The top teams have big benches and can make as many substitutions as they like. We have four or five players who are really at the necessary level, so we have to play them the entire time. It’s a big disadvantage over a full tournament, obviously.
“For a long time, the US and Canada were the only teams playing at any level. These days Asian and South American teams are really picking up. Teams like Germany and Japan are really strong. It’s really coming together as a sport.”
Funding remains a key issue for the team and they’re hoping to get corporate sponsorship for their trip to Sydney, alongside some other fundraising endeavours.
Two teams in the four-team Irish league recently and the national team received funding to support their wheelchairs and other equipment from Lottery Ireland, to the tune of €84,000 in total, which has been key, given the specialist chairs typically cost between €4,000 and €8,000 a time. Due to the physical nature of the sport, chairs typically last between two and five years.
“The lottery money has been a huge help, but we’ll also need more for Sydney, that’s the biggest challenge,” Lynch said. “We’ll be shaking buckets ahead of the Leinster v Scarlets game at the weekend, and there’ll be more fundraising to follow. Hopefully we can make it, it would be a huge disappointment if we don’t.”