Eight of the world’s best wheelchair rugby teams are in Copenhagen, Denmark this week to take part in the Denmark Wheelchair Rugby Challenge. The tournament will serve as a test event for the venue that will host the 2014 IWRF World Wheelchair Rugby Championships and is the first major international event since the 2012 Paralympics. In addition to serving as a test event for the venue, the event will also help the teams in attendance gauge their performance and compare themselves to their opponents ahead of their respective IWRF zonal championships happening later this year in the U.S., Belgium, and South Africa. Pride and world rankings are at stake so the competition is sure to be fierce. This preview is divided into three sections highlighting the teams as Contenders, Challengers and Dark Horses. Each team has a number of storylines heading into this event and the new quadrennial on the road to Rio.
The three medalists from London 2012 Australia, Canada and the USA, enter this tournament with the same expectation they always have, to win. As three of the mere four teams to have ever won a World Championship or Paralympic gold medal. These three teams enjoy a rich history, and while there has been some turnover on each of their rosters, they still enter the event as Podium favorites.
Australia: The Rich Get Richer.
The gold medalists from London 2012 may have changed the game of wheelchair rugby for years to come, with their 3.5-3.5-0.5-0.5. line up, that dominated all-comers and won each of their Paralympic matches by over ten points. The pure physical ability of Batt and Bond proved too difficult for any line-up combination to stop, and has some thinking that they may be ushering in a new era for their game internationally, where coaches and organizations will search for two 3.5s with the trunk that Batt and Bond possess and more 0.5s as well However while this line-up may have struck gold in London, look for Australian coach to Brad Dubberly to try a few a new lines now that he has former Paralympic gold medalists and New Zealand international Curtis Palmer in the squad.
Palmer has long been regarded as one of the top 2.5s in the world, and has years of international experience under his belt, having played at three Paralympics and a number of world championships in addition to playing domestically in leagues all over the world. His talent and experience adds even more strength to the world’s current #1 who will be looking to defend their ranking in Denmark.
Canada: Youth and Experience. The Golden Combination?
Canada fought their way to a silver medal at the 2012 Canada Cup by relying on their experience, two months later at the Paralympics they flipped the switch by unleashing their youngest team member 18, now 19 year old Zak Madell, who’s speed and power stunned some of the competition and was instrumental in their semi-final win over the U.S. The grizzled veterans performed well and the team’s depth was on full display. Madell will be in Denmark along with 8 other returning members from the Paralympic team, and three newer faces. Among the returnees are recently named co-captain Trevor Hirshfield, who in my somewhat biased opinion was the closest thing to a Paralympic MVP not named Batt, and one of the most experienced duos in the sport in Garret Hickling and Dave Wilsie. Canada will be hoping to regain the #1 ranking that haven’t had in a while, ahead of IWRF Americas Zone Qualifier in Birmingham, Alabama.
USA: Rebuild? Try Reload.
To say the USA was disappointed with their bronze medal performance in London would be an understatement, in pool play they easily handled the likes of France, Great Britain, and Japan, and rolled into a semi-final against rival Canada, and then the wheels fell off. The Canadians came out hot and had an early seven point lead. Despite a valiant comeback effort for the rest of the game, the USA came up short on a turnover by star Chuck Aoki near the end of the game. The USA would however respond in their next game by dominating Japan for the bronze medal.
Since London though, the USA has lost a number of their Paralympians to retirement and/or sabbaticals and will be bringing a very different squad to Denmark. Gone is all-world 2.0 Will Groulx, and defensive specialist Nick Springer, but in their place comes a group of young, dedicated, and determined new athletes hoping to return the USA to where they believe they belong, on top of the podium. The USQRA is the best league in the world and as a result the cupboard is certainly not bare. They return a handful of players from London 2012 including Aoki who is probably the best 3.0 in the world right now and only getting better, the giant that is Joe Delegrave, and an incredibly fast 1.0 in Chad Cohn. Among those who will be representing the stars and stripes in Denmark that weren’t in London, are Josh Wheeler who filled in admirably for Chuck Aoki at the 2012 Canada Cup and played a big part in that semi-final win over the Australian Batt and Bond combo, and a group of 2.0s who will look to continue the USA’s long established tradition at excellence at that classification. While revenge is a word to avoid at this level, redemption isn’t, and the USA will certainly have that on their mind.
As wheelchair rugby continues to develop around the world, the disparity among teams continues to shrink, as more and more teams are now challenging for not only positions in the Paralympics and World Championships, but medals as well. These teams are hoping to crash the podium and took one of the traditional powers of their perch. Sweden and Japan have both pulled off massive upsets in the past and Great Britain is a team that always seems to be knocking on the door, is this the time for them to break through.
Japan and Great Britain: New Coaches. New Heights?
Both Japan and Great Britain have undergone coaching changes in the past year, and both have hired former international wheelchair rugby players to lead their players into the future, where the two teams got the coaches couldn’t have differed any further though. Great Britain’s new coach comes from within their own borders as they selected former G.B. international Paul Shaw, who has spent the past few years coaching the West Coast Crash club team. He’ll have an established rapport with his team already and has number of youthful prospects that have the potential to replace the teams recent retirees and to take the team to the next level that has eluded them for so long, the podium.
Japan on the hand looked to the other side of the world for their new head coach, picking former Team Canada assistant Adam Frost. Frost will bring plenty of xs and os knowledge with him and plenty of information on North American players having coached one of the better club teams in North America for many years in British Columbia. He hasn’t too long with his team, he inherits a strong core that includes Daisuke Ikezaki, which won a bronze medal at the 2010 World Championships and beat the USA,at last year’s Canada Cup. If Frost is successful with Japan he’ll join a line of North American coaches to have had success in other coaching countries other than their own including Benoit Labreque, Joe Soares, and Terry Vinyard. A medal for this team isn’t out of the question and should be among their expectations.
Sweden: Canada’s Kryptonite
While my compatriots and many of my friends will roast and probably spin me later for writing those words. There is no denying that Sweden has benefited from hiring Canadian coaches as Benoit Labreque and former coach (and Canadian manager Marco Dispaltro) brought their knowledge of the Canadians to Sweden with them, and used it to the Swedes’ advantage. Since 2010 they’ve upset the Canadians in a World Championship (in Vancouver), pushed them to the brink at the Canada Cup, and arguably would have forced overtime against them at the Paralympics if not for some Trevor Hirshfield heroics in the final seconds. They likely won’t get a shot at the Canucks this time around, as they’re in pool with Australia and the U.S. Two teams that have easily dispatched them in their past two meetings.
When Sweden is at their best though they can challenge the top teams and even pull off an upset. They have some phenomenal athletes and can match almost any team physically, if they stick to their strengths and avoid costly errors, they could be make a big splash in Denmark. They should be aiming to the crash the podium and at the very least overtake Great Britain to secure the #1 seed at the 2013 IWRF European Championships
The Dark Horses
Belgium and the host Denmark enter this tournament with an outside shot of making any real noise. Belgium will be without some of their players including 3.5. Lars Merters who is one the world’s top players and who spent the year in the United States, with Lars, Belgium would be ranked among my challengers at this tournament but without their dominant big man its hard to envision them knocking off Japan or Great Britain in pool play never-mind Canada.
As for Denmark, they’re the only team in this event outside of the world’s top seven, coming in ranked 12th in the world (7th in Europe) and will be using this as an opportunity to compare themselves to the non-European teams ahead of next year’s IWRF World Championships, Leon Jorgensen is a great player but based on their world ranking it’s a stretch to call them a real challenger to the top guns. Expect their home crowd to be loud and possibly help will them to a victory or two.
While Belgium and Denmark aren’t the favourites, that doesn’t mean to say they’re short on talent, they have world classes players that will play their hearts out, for Belgium they’re lack of depth though could be their undoing in Denmark, and for the host, they will soon gain what they currently lack. Experience.
So will we see the traditional powers stay at the top, will one of the challengers rise to the occasion and make a push for the podium, or will a dark horse go on a Cinderella run? If you want to find out tune into the games that will be live streamed on the tournament website which can be found here. http://2014wrwc.dhif.dk/FrontPage/?id=1392
About the author:
My name is Nathan Bragg and I’m a second year Journalism and Communications student at Carleton University. I write on a variety of Paralympic sports, but mainly wheelchair basketball and rugby, which I have played recreationally. You can follow, compliment, criticize and rant at me on Twitter @WheelNbragg, or spin me at a gym near you. If you know someone who you feel would make a good interview or profile for the Wheel Report or an event worth covering please don’t hesitate to let me know.
Views are my own and do not reflect those of BCWSA, CWSA, Carleton University, The Charlatan and/or any other individual and group.