One of the most exciting events at any Paralympic Games is wheelchair rugby, a sport that mixes bash and crash with skill and tactics.
This time round, there won’t be the usual crowds, but wheelchair rugby will still be a must-watch event in Tokyo.
The game was invented in Canada in 1977 — it was originally known unofficially as ‘Murderball’.
It became a demonstration sport for the Paralympics in Atlanta in 1996, and medals were first awarded at the Sydney Games, four years later.
Wheelchair rugby is a mix of elements of basketball, football and ice hockey — the latter for the big collisions that happen between players in their chairs.
How is it played?
The field of play is the size of a basketball court (28m by 15m).
It is split into two halves — like basketball, they are referred to as a team’s front and back court, depending where the ball is.
The goal line is on the baseline of the court — the scoring zone is eight metres wide.
Although the name of the game is wheelchair rugby, the ball used is a volleyball, which can be carried, dribbled or passed down the court — kicking is not allowed. The aim of the game is to carry the ball with control over the opposition goal line for a score, known as a goal.
It’s a physical game. Players make contact — sometimes at high speed — to either stop attackers making progress when the opposition has the ball, or to keep them away from teammates when their own side is going for goal.
The blocks lead to some of the biggest sounds at the Paralympics, as the wheelchairs crash together.
Games are played over four eight-minute quarters. Any time play stops, so does the clock.
When a team gets possession, they have 12 seconds to get the ball into their front court, or attacking half, like basketball. There is a 40-second shot clock in which they must score. If they don’t they lose possession.
How many players are on court?
Teams have four players on court at any one time.
Players are given an official classification depending on their level of functional ability, rated from 0.5 to 3.5.
Generally, players with lower ratings tend to have defensive roles, while the higher-rated players have more speed and mobility in attack.
Australia’s star player, Ryley Batt, is generally viewed as the best player in the world. Rated 3.5, he made his Paralympic debut in Athens at the age of 16 (the youngest ever) and will be competing in his fifth Games in Tokyo.
A team cannot exceed a total of eight points on court at any time. There is an exception to this rule — a team that has a female player on court receives an allowance of an additional 0.5 points for every female on court.
As an example, Shae Graham will become Australia’s first-ever female Paralympic wheelchair rugby player in Tokyo. When she is on court, Australia will be able to have a total of 8.5 points represented.
Japan’s Kae Kurahashi is another female player who will be in action in Tokyo. The strong defender has a rating of 0.5, which means with the allowance her rating effectively doesn’t count when she is on court. This allows Japan to distribute the full 8 points between the other three players.
Who are the favourites?
The Australian team, the Steelers, are the two-time defending Paralympic champions and ranked number one in the world.
In Rio, Australia beat the United States — now ranked number two — in a dramatic gold medal game, winning 59-58 in a game that went to double overtime.
The US won silver, while Japan took the bronze.
Australia will have more combination options this time with Graham (2.5, reduced to 2.0) as a key mid-point player along with Andrew Edmondson (2.0).
Batt, Andrew Harrison (3.0), Chris Bond (3.5), Josh Hose (3.0) and Jason Lees (1.0) have been part of both gold medal-winning teams.
Edmondson, Ben Fawcett (0.5) and Jayden Warn (3.0) joined the team in Rio, while Graham, Mick Ozanne (0.5), Jake Howe (1.0) and Richard Voris (1.5) will be making their debuts.
One problem for the Steelers is that COVID restrictions have meant that the pre-Paralympics camp in Tokyo is the first time the whole squad has been together since March 2020.
Japan has the home-court advantage as hosts – the team also has bragging rights since they beat Australia by one point in the final of the 2018 world championships. They will rely on Kurahashi’s defence, and the scoring of Yukinobu Ike.
The United States will still fancy its chances, with a mix of experience with Chuck Aoki (3.0) and Josh Wheeler (2.5) and debutants like Ray Hennagir (3.5) and Joe Jackson (1.0).
The group stage will be very quick, with teams playing three games in as many days as they try to qualify for the semi-finals.
Who is in Australia’s group?
Australia is in group A, alongside Japan, Denmark and France.
Group B contains the United States, Great Britain, Canada and New Zealand.
The big game in group A will be on Friday August 27, when Australia faces Japan. The winner of that game will most likely finish top.
From there, it’s straight into the semi-finals on Saturday, and then the bronze medal game and gold medal game on the Sunday.