The Denmark Wheelchair Rugby Challenge started with a bang, included a major upset and saw another underdog push a game to the wire. All teams came to play and it showed as spectators and online viewers were treated to two high quality and high intensity games.
Game #1 Pool A #6 Sweden 54 vs. #12 Denmark 57 (OT).
The host team pulled off the first upset of the tournament in the first game, as they relied on 3.0. Leon Jorgensssen to bulldoze through the Swedish defense and halt several attacks. The two teams exchanged goals throughout the first three quarters, and Denmark eventually started to create some separation midway through the 4th taking a two goal lead. The Swedes, however, continued to press on and forced a couple key turnovers, allowing them to cut the deficit to one and gain possession with around 15 seconds on the clock. Tobias Sandberg snuck through the Danish defense and managed to score with a second left, hitting the ground, and controversially getting no call as from the view of the cameras in he appeared to have been spun as he crossed the goal-line, but the referees are the ones that make the decision and may have seen something the cameras missed.
In the overtime period the Danes continued to play well defensively, and played the angles well. Their pressure and smart defending paid off as they forced a few late turnovers to pull off the upset and signal to the rest of the world that they’re more than just the home team. Denmark will looking to continue pulling off upsets as they play the 1st and 3rd ranked Australians, and Americans tomorrow.
Game #2 Pool B. #4 Japan 49 vs. #7 Belgium 48
The second game of the tournament saw recently appointed coach Adam Frost notch his win at the helm of the Japanese team, and the underdog Belgium give Japan a better fight than anyone expected.
While many teams lost older players to retirement following London 2012, Belgium didn’t lose any of the grizzled veterans like Bob Vanacker and Ronald Verhaegen, but were surprised when 26-year-old 2010 WWRC All-Star Lars Mertens opted to retire from the international game. This left Belgium without their top scorer and primary ball-handler of the past several years, a player who was key in their 2009 and 2011 European Championship runs. While it’s often easy to write off a team after losing such a player, (I admittedly did so in my predictions), Belgium responded admirably using two new line-ups that had more balance than those of their Paralympic team and relying on their experience and court savvy to keep them in games, rather than youth or pure athleticism.
In the first half the two exchanged goals, and early there was little separating the two teams. As the first half went on though Japan started to wear the Belgians out and forced them to use three of their timeouts. Japan’s dynamic duo of Daisuke Ikezaki and Shin Nakazato forced several Belgium turnovers and linked up on several great passes to take a four-point lead into halftime.
In the second half Japan stretched the lead to five, but the Flemish Lions (Belgium’s national team also serves as its lone club team) continued to claw their way back into and slowly but surely they got the deficit down to one point, with their refusal to throw in the towel and a couple dropped passes from Japanese 2.0 Kazuhiko Kanno but weren’t able to force another key turnover. Japan made some clutch plays down the stretch to hold on for the victory.
While Belgium will undoubtedly be disappointed with the final result, they should be pleased with their overall level of performance and the knowledge that their first few post-Mertens years could still hold some promise. Belgium will take on Canada and Great Britain tomorrow.
As for Japan, they’re likely to be happy with the victory, but will be looking for an improved performance in the next few games, and will hope to avoid the second half turnovers that plagued them today. They’ll also play Great Britain and Canada tomorrow.
Overall Day 1 of the Denmark Wheelchair Rugby Challenge was incredibly exciting and sets up a Day 2 with a full schedule that will determine the semi-final and consolation round. Day 2 will also include match-ups that see all three medalists from London 2012 in action. I’ll be live tweeting the games that are happening at reasonable times in the Pacific Standard Time Zone and be writing previews, recaps, and reactions from now until Monday. Follow me on Twitter @WheelNbragg
All expressed views and opinions are my own and do not reflect and/or represent those of CWSA, Wheelchair Rugby Canada, BCWSA, Carleton University, and/or any other individual and/or group.