Introducing Wheelchair Rugby League

“On first viewing, it looks like it shouldn’t be happening, but it challenges your preconceptions of disabled people.”

That is Tom Coyd’s honest verdict on wheelchair rugby league, a sport rising to prominence at a rapid speed.

Coyd is England’s head coach and is currently in the midst of plotting World Cup success later this year.

“It’s a clashing, brutal, violent game played at speed, which is terrifying to watch if you haven’t experienced it before.

“It’s a bit of a shock factor and people are definitely taken away by it.

“There is this view that ‘they’re vulnerable and they need to be looked after’ but wheelchair rugby league laughs in the face of that.”

Coyd and his team are stepping up their preparations ahead of their mid-season international against Wales in June before the World Cup kicks off later this year.

The men’s, women’s and wheelchair sides are all aiming for glory and there is a collective desire from all three teams under the England banner.

Coyd, appointed head coach last year after previously serving as assistant since 2017 under previous head coach Mark Roughsedge, hails from the Medway Dragons club in Kent.

His father, Martin Coyd OBE, is the general manager of England Wheelchair Rugby League and a driving force behind the game’s development.

“I studied sports science at Leeds Beckett University between 2013 and 2016,” explains 25-year-old Coyd.

“Then after graduating my dad was the general manager of the team with Mark Roughsedge. They wanted to improve the way that we trained and try and get a bit more scientific.

“With my sports science degree, I was asked if I would be interested in joining as an assistant coach and trying to improve our practices, basically.

“I thought about it and said ‘yes, it’s a fantastic opportunity’, so I joined in 2017 as Mark’s assistant.

“From then I’ve implemented the practices I’ve learned through my university studies which I thought would have a good impact in the wheelchair game.

“I’ve also tried to upskill myself as much as possible in disability literature, of which there is a fair bit.”

The England wheelchair team had a hectic 2019 with a two-match Test series in France, which ended 1-1 against the world’s top-ranked side, and a tour of Australia which saw them play five times.

They played North Queensland in Townsville, Queensland in Brisbane and New South Wales in Sydney.

They have not played since their tour down under due to the coronavirus pandemic, wrecking plans of a return Ashes series on home soil in 2020.

But they will face Wales at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield on Saturday, June 26 and there have been regular virtual meetings throughout the pandemic.

The squad’s first training session together in 2021 was held at the English Institute of Sport last month.

From his squad of 18, 12 are disabled and six are non-disabled and all are male, although the wheelchair is mixed gender at all levels of the game.

Coyd adds: “It’s five players on the pitch and the only rule is that three of them have to be physically disabled.

“But if your five best players are disabled then you can play them. It would be a dream to go all the way at the World Cup.”

The wheelchair tournament will see matches played at London’s Copper Box Arena, the English Institute of Sport and the M&S Bank Arena in Liverpool, with eight teams competing in two groups of four followed by the knockout stages.

Hosts England are in Group A with old rivals Australia and two of the sport’s newest nations in Spain and Norway.

Coyd adds: “We’ve got our fingers crossed that restrictions are eased to the point where we can have a massive crowd in the Copper Box.

“If we play well enough, we will go on to play in Sheffield and Liverpool, closer to the rugby league heartlands, if you like.

“That indoor atmosphere, where the sound cannot escape, and a sell-out crowd cheering on the boys in red and white, I think it will be a moment the boys will never ever forget.”

Coyd has forged relationships with England men’s coach Shaun Wane and England women’s coach Richards in a World Cup year.

“Shaun’s support has been amazing and he’s really generous with his time,” he says.

“Obviously he’s had great success as a coach and some unbelievable experience.

“He’s always been more than willing to share that knowledge and listen to my questions and concerns.

“It’ll be the same with Craig, so as a trio we’re obviously all pushing in the same direction to win three World Cups.

“But we definitely recognise that we’re going to be coming across similar sticking points so, if we can work collaboratively, I think we can do this better than any other nations.”

Domestically, the wheelchair game will see fixtures taking place across the UK leading into the World Cup.

Coyd explains: “The current thinking is that we will play double headers on a Saturday and a Sunday, so there will be three teams meeting at one venue.

“Each team will play two games of sixty minutes to get as much football in as possible.

“We have reduced the match time from 80 to 60 minutes because asking them to play potentially 160 minutes of football is putting them in a dangerous position, physically.

“But we just want to give the players as much exposure of the competition as possible to make up for lost time.

“That’s the plan at the moment and there will be teams travelling from as far south as Dartford and as far north as Dundee.

“We’ve got such a diverse range of players and their stories are all so different.”

Coyd cannot wait to experience the atmosphere of a crowd at wheelchair games again, adding: “With the size of the pitch being smaller than a normal rugby league field, fans are a lot closer to the action and, with it being indoors, none of the noise gets lost.

“You’re just right there in it, it’s completely immersive, and we do our absolute best to make it as recognisable to the 13-a-side running game. And we do a bloody good job of it.”