A Coaches Perspective - Australian Nationals
Written by Ben Newton - View photos from the Championship
Last weekend, I was one of many athletes from 5 states across Australia who descended upon Sydney Olympic Park for the National Wheelchair Rugby Championships held on August 2-4.
While I was making my coaching debut rather than competing thanks to an ill-timed rib injury, many other current and former Aussie Steelers (as well as a couple of NZ Wheelblack veterans) were playing for teams from New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria, South Australia and the developing Western Australia. The games were a real mixed bag, with many rookies given their first taste of representative Wheelchair Rugby and some close, intense play between old and new rivals.
Returning to the competition after an absence of several years and led by the experience of Curtis Palmer (voted one of the tournament's All-Star Four), the West Coast Enforcers found it tough to compete against more seasoned international players in other teams. Their enthusiasm paid off though, as they were able to upset the defending champion GIO NSW Gladiators team and claim 4th place. Hopefully the Enforcers are able to build upon this result and secure funding to ensure the future of their team.
As for the Gladiators, much has and will be made of the absence of Ryley Batt - the key to their dominance in this domestic competition over much of the past decade. Ryley made the decision to rest ahead of the London Paralympics, and while not lacking effort, the team struggled mightily without his presence and leadership on court. Several years ago I played for the Gladiators, and I hope that their 5th place finish encourages a refocus on developing the rest of their team to reduce their reliance on Ryley. Wheelchair Rugby in New South Wales and Australia will only become stronger for it.
Arguably the best games of the weekend were played between the SA Sharks and Victorian Coloplast Thunder - two teams which really embody the past and present of Australian Wheelchair Rugby. The Sharks were driven as always, by the incredibly experienced partnership between George Hucks and Steve Porter, and rejoined by past NZ import and eventual tournament All-Star Sholto Taylor. Contrasting this were current Aussie Steelers Josh Hose, Andrew Harrison and Jason Lees along with the experience of Naz Erdem and retired Steeler Bryce Alman (also a tournament All-Star).
In the preliminary stage, there was absolutely nothing between these two teams - the Sharks were winners by a single goal in overtime. They met again for a semi-final which went to triple overtime, the Sharks again prevailing through their experience. While the Thunder were understandably disappointed with 3rd place, the core of their team will be looking towards the London Paralympics in less than a month.
One team was the tournament standout, and it gives me great pleasure to say that yes, it was mine - the Jetstar Gold Coast Titans WC Rugby team representing QLD. Led by the dynamic rising star 3.5 Chris Bond (tournament MVP), Australian co-captains Ryan Scott (tournament All-Star) and Cam Carr, and supported by Kev Kersnovske and James Duncan (both coming out of retirement), and newer low pointers Mick Ozanne and Paul Shearer, the Titans looked unstoppable in Ryley's absence, going 6-0 to beat the SA Sharks in the final and take the state's first championship in the 22-year history of the competition. Chris was in excellent form and proved near-impossible to contain, while at the other end of the court the Titans' transitions from offence to defence and vice-versa simply overwhelmed the other teams. It was one of the more painful experiences of my Rugby career to be stuck on the sideline, but I couldn't be prouder of the way that my teammates played.
As a whole, the tournament was a great success. In 2013, as a post-Paralympic year, I expect to see the league grow and focus more on developing players that are coming through the ranks. This should lead to an increase in the size and quality of the player pool at all levels of Wheelchair Rugby in Australia.
For now though, bring on the big one - London had better be ready because the Aussies are coming!