IN July Swindon St George travel to Yorkshire to play Bradford Bulls in what could be a crucial top of the league encounter, they have already taken on rugby league giants Halifax this season as well, narrowly losing out.
However Greenbridge Road will not be hosting Super League rugby any time soon. This is Swindon St George Wheelchair, the community project team mixing it with the big boys in the top tier of the sport.
The team started just three years ago, by Tony Ellis, the St George chairman, who had spotted the opportunity to start a wheelchair side up when the council bought a set of sports wheelchairs for basketball. Those wheelchairs are multi-sport and he was able to secure shared use of them for wheelchair rugby league.
Through the use of social media, his own contacts and council disability sport programs Ellis was able to found St George Wheelchair. Now St George have two full teams and a youth section, their training sessions are so popular more wheelchairs may have to be sought.
Ellis, who won the won Inclusion Coach of the Year at the Wiltshire and Swindon Sports Awards in 2013, is a big advocate of wheelchair rugby league and spoke to the Advertiser about the sport and the St George side.
“It’s probably one of the most inclusive sports you’ll ever come across, you don’t even have to have a disability to play,” Ellis told the Advertiser.
“There’s no discrimination, you can have males and females on the same team, you can have adults, juniors, the able bodied and those with disabilities. For example a 14-year old schoolgirl, Billie Batten, is one of the first team’s stars.”
Wheelchair rugby league combines the original game with tag rugby. Usually played indoors each side has five players, as with the able-bodied game, attacking teams are limited on the amount of tackles they can receive without an obligatory turn over of possesion, in this case five. A tackle is made by pulling off a tag on your opponent. Offside, knock-on and in-touch apply just like in the full version of the game. Conversions are punched over specially designed posts from a tee.
St George Wheelchair, along with Swindon Shock Wheelchair Basketball, are one of the strongest disability sport clubs in the region and their popularity is ever increasing.
“The club’s still growing and we’ve only got a occasionally got a few spare chairs, the only way we can expand is by putting on more sessions. When we get too many people turning we’ll have to put on separate sessions.
“We’ve pretty much got there with the development team and juniors, where do you stop?
“You have to keep it going.”
That level of interest means the club has been able to find plenty of high-calibre players, currently they boast four wheelchair rugby internationals in their ranks. That level of competition means when they face off with the big name stars of the orginal game they are not intimidated. St George have started the season well and are currently second in the national league “The other teams in our league are all backed by Super League clubs and we’re competing. Even though we started from scratch, now we’re up with the best of the best.
“The idea is to get into the play-offs this season, with the ultimate aim of winning the national league. We can definitely get to the play-offs this season, what we can do with that is down to us, we’re still developing.“ Though there is little cross-over with the able-bodied side and with the two often playing at the same time little opportunity for touchline support, the two sides consider themselves as a single entity.
“We’re two teams one club, the end of season awards was done on a joint basis. Though as it’s the same season, we both play from April to August, we can only have mutual support, support on game day can’t happen but we’re two teams, one club.”
For those interested the sport or St George Wheelchair can find out more through the club’s facebook page: www.facebook.com/pages/Swindon-St-George-Wheelchair-Rugby-League