Welcome to your new favourite sport. Well, that’s what those fortunate enough to be at London’s Copper Box Arena must have thought after witnessing a thoroughly entertaining night with 20 of the most remarkable athletes you are likely to find anywhere.
This is rugby league, but not quite as you know it. And it is perhaps England’s best chance of winning a Rugby League World Cup this year. The previous three iterations of the tournament have almost been held in low-key circumstances but this time, rugby league’s best kept secret is there for all to see. And how we saw the best of the game here.
The hosts have lost the last two finals to France, but having beaten the French mid-season hopes are high Tom Coyd’s side can go one further on home soil. Those hopes were raised further with a commanding win over Australia’s Wheelaroos to put them in control of Group A, and on course to make the final in Manchester on 18 November.
There were audible winces from the Copper Box crowd every time the players collided at full tilt, often with their chairs being tipped over and sending the heroes of this sport to the floor. Those at the heart of the collisions were, by and large, smiling every time they pulled themselves up and back into the thick of the action.
That is the beauty of wheelchair rugby league. It is arguably the toughest version of the sport to play. It is uncompromising and it is beyond physical. But the players play the game in the right way with smiles on their faces: it is a celebration of everything that is wonderful about rugby league. And now it has the stage and the platform it deserves.
With able-bodied and disabled players sharing a field, as well as players of any age and gender, there are few sports that are as open and welcoming. Just a few years ago, the sport was being played in empty arenas on courts littered with markings from other sports. This felt like the night the wheelchair game announced its arrival to the world. It was helped by the nature and manner of England’s victory, of course – the hosts were outstanding.
The early exchanges were, as you’d expect between England and Australia, brutal. The Wheelaroos took the lead after nine minutes when Diab Karim collected his own chip over the top to ground the ball.
But that stirred England into life and by half-time they were 26-6 ahead. Two tries from Joe Coyd and another from Jack Brown put the hosts in control, and while the intensity – and the huge collisions – did not stop from either side, England were much more impressive with ball in hand.
The outstanding Nathan Collins then added a fourth try before Coyd claimed his second to move the hosts into what felt like an unassailable position, even with 40 minutes still to play. England retained control of the proceedings after the interval and while there weren’t as many points, you sensed their experience meant they were able to hold Australia at arm’s length.
Seb Bechara crossed for the first try of the second half before, with nine minutes remaining, Coyd broke free to send Collins over in the corner for his second. That made it 38-6 and in truth, it was a scoreline that did not flatter the hosts, with Australia adding a late penalty before both sides received the applause their efforts deserved.
In the other match in Group A, the first match of the double-header in London, Spain defeated Ireland 55-32. Ireland’s Phil Roberts scored the first try of the tournament to put the Wolfhounds ahead but Spain took control of the remainder of the first half, scoring 30 unanswered points.
Spain’s Theo Gonzalez scored a try in each half and was generally at the heart of everything they did well in that first half. Peter Johnston Jr scored a hat-trick for the Wolfhounds either side of half-time to make it 34-20 and threaten a comeback from the Irish. But Spain regained control, with Yannick Martin among their scorers in the second half as they managed to keep the Irish at arm’s length and emerge comfortable winners.