This article was first written for and published by NRL.com.
There was more pressure on Brad Fittler and his team on Wednesday night than they probably realised – there was a State of Origin clean sweep on the line.
After claiming the Women’s State of Origin title at North Sydney Oval, the NSW Wheelchair Rugby League team delivered another win at Sydney Olympic Park last weekend to set the stage for Tedesco, Pearce, Ferguson, Cordner, Cook and Co.
Saturday’s wheelchair match was the first time the two teams had competed under the Origin banner. The women’s match between NSW and Queensland was first awarded “State of Origin” branding in 2018.
For Wheelchair Rugby League founding member Yarra Ryan, the name change is significant because “it brings Wheelchair Rugby League into the fold. It brings us in with the women and the men and makes us all one broader team that has to beat Queensland”.
Beat them they did.
Aside from the at-times ferocious action on the field, the reception afforded the teams – both physically and in a digital sense – was the other big talking point.
“The crowd that was there legitimises our sport. We had such a large crowd. We doubled the number that came last year,” Ryan said.
“We had 1000 people at the venue and 5000 people watching online. That included a lot of new people who had never been to a game before.
“They got the chance to see wheelchair rugby league as a sport, rather than just a sport for disabled people.
“They see us taking the sport seriously and that just like the other men and women who play for their states, that we are athletes.”
I was one of those people there on Saturday afternoon getting my first taste of wheelchair rugby league. I spotted NRL CEO Todd Greenberg and NSWRL boss Dave Trodden in attendance.
I had been to watch wheelchair rugby (the Paralympic sport) before so had some idea of the crash and bash that was to come, but what I didn’t quite appreciate until the game started on Saturday was that wheelchair rugby league has very similar rules to rugby league.
“Wheelchair rugby league is what’s called adaptive sport, so we’ve adapted a sport so it is accessible to people in wheelchairs,” Ryan said.
If you’re a rugby league fan, it won’t take you too long to pick up wheelchair rugby league.
A tackle is complete when one of the tags is ripped off the shoulders of an opposition player. A kick on the fifth tackle looks like an AFL-style handball. And the points system is the same with four points being awarded for a try and two for a goal.
Another part of wheelchair rugby league which may surprise some of you is that – different to wheelchair rugby – people with a disability and able-bodied people can play alongside one another.
It is a totally inclusive sport, so much so that in the NSW team there is a father-son duo competing. The father is Craig Cannane and his son is Cory. Cory is able-bodied and loves playing the sport alongside his dad.
“Our sport is open to anybody. Anyone can come along. It may look brutal but your chair protects you; so it’s not as brutal as you think,” Ryan said.
This game was another great example of just how inclusive rugby league is. I continue to be proud that our game is one that has a version for everyone no matter your gender, shape, size or ability.
I look forward to this fixture continuing to grow both in audience and participants in years to come. Hopefully, in the near future, there will also be a women’s Wheelchair State of Origin fixture alongside the men.
With a women’s team already playing in a second-tier competition in NSW, that day may be closer than what we think.