With the Paralympic Games – the sport’s shop-window – postponed until 2021 like the Olympic Games, 2020 could be viewed as something of a holding year for the International Wheelchair Rugby Federation.
However, the IWRF are using the enforced break from competition to address certain challenges that will hopefully make the sport better funded and even more popular in the future.
Four key areas – governance, the organisation’s relationship with World Rugby, funding and inclusivity – form the focus of the current strategic plan up to 2023.
As subject matter goes, good governance may not capture headlines in the same way as Japan’s epic overtime gold medal win against Australia at the 2018 World Championships, but for IWRF president Richard Allcroft, it is the bedrock of the sport.
“If you’re in an organisation, especially one that is under-resourced, you are always reacting to situations, and whenever that is the case, it is really hard to grow a business and develop it and focus on what you want it to do,” he pointed out.
“I have always seen having good governance in place as enabling you to be proactive in the way you go about your work. I think it is an important area we need to look at and we are spending a lot of time on it.”
Since 2009, a collaborative relationship with World Rugby has helped the IWRF to grow its worldwide union membership by 50 per cent, from 20 to 30.
Sat in the IWRF’s central office in the North of England city of Sheffield, which was part-funded by World Rugby, Allcroft sees that as another key link in the chain in terms of developing the sport.
“Our partnership with Word Rugby has been in place 10 years, perhaps a bit more, and has grown year-on-year,” he said.
“Having World Rugby as an organisation we can go to and speak to for support is massive. They have helped us financially, with training and education, support around WADA compliance and with our communications.”
Currently, the IWRF’s income is largely derived from membership and athlete fees and events.
While the membership grows, so too does the financial strain on the organisation. Establishing more diverse revenue streams – and mitigating against the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic – is another on the ‘to-do’ list.
“We’ve seen growth in the last 10 years from 20 very strong nations to 30, so that growth for us has been quite big and the impact on competition structures has become demanding. But it is a great positive to have because it is all about creating more member nations,” he said.
The fourth strand to the strategic plan is to become more inclusive and encourage the growth of the different disciplines of wheelchair rugby found around the world.
Wheelchair rugby fives is being developed in Great Britain, then there is wheelchair rugby sevens – where an oval ball rather than a round one is used and tries are scored and conversions made – and a low-point game, which allows athletes with further reduced functionality opportunities to compete.
“In 2015, we were challenged on one of our core values – inclusivity,” Allcroft revealed.
“Our sport was developed for individuals with a high level of impairment. We always saw ourselves as an inclusive sport, but you actually start to challenge yourself on that, and sort of say, are we actually open to any individual with an impairment?
“We looked at this and thought, what can we do? We have direct conversations with sports that have developed over the last few years, and in the last few weeks we have started to look at how we can go harder at this in real terms.
“At the end of the day, it is about people playing sports. The challenge is how do we help to grow those sports internationally?”
Paralympics is the pinnacle
A quarter of a century after wheelchair rugby was invented in Canada it became a full medal sport at the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games.
With two teams of four going at each other hammer and tongs in steel chariots on a 28 x 15-metre court, inside a tight, packed arena, the gladiatorial buzz around the sport made it a big draw.
It wasn’t by chance that come the London 2012 Games it was the first sport to sell-out its 12,000-capacity venue.
Above all else, the sport sells itself once the eyeballs of the world fall upon it.
“I’ve been in the crowd with people, and perhaps it might be their first time seeing the sport live, and they’re not knowing what to expect, thinking ‘what is this going to be like?’ Allcroft said.
“Then, when the game starts and straight away you get the physicality of it, with the chairs hitting each other and the sound of metal-on-metal in a live venue, it resonates.
“It becomes more about the sport and less about the individual circumstances and the trauma and the impairment they may have to overcome on a daily basis.”
The importance of the Paralympics to the overall health of the sport is not lost on Allcroft, who narrowly missed out on a place in the Team GB squad for those historic Sydney Games.
“It is huge not only for the eight nations who have qualified for it (Japan, Australia, Denmark, GB, USA, New Zealand, Canada and France) but the wider sport as well.
“It generates things like funding opportunities, and our ability to promote the sport.
“Being part of the Paralympic movement is massive, it means we get to engage with the International Paralympic Committee and work with other sports that are working towards the same goal. 2021 could be an interesting year. Hopefully the Tokyo 2020 final is as good as the final of the last World Championships in 2018.”
Growing the spread of the game so that no one team can monopolise the sport, as Australia have done in the past, is another task in hand for the IWRF.
Thanks to Juan Pablo Salazar and his Maximus social inclusion programme, and assistance from the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, South America has seen an upsurge in interest over the last decade with the sport played in Colombia, Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Paraguay.
Meanwhile in Asia, in 2014 the schedule of the Asia Para-Games included wheelchair rugby for the first time and the game is attracting more take-up there, too.
Allcroft knows they are only scratching the surface, though. Africa as a continent, for example, only has one member nation – South Africa – and they are 31st and last in the world rankings: a far cry from their standing in the able-bodied men’s game.
“Africa is an area we are going to have a look at over this next strategic cycle; there is some interest there,” Allcroft said.
“But like in South America, wheelchair provision is a huge problem. Cheaper chairs can still cost as much as $2,000.”
Keeping the wheels in motion
As someone who was once responsible for nuclear weapons on submarines, you couldn’t wish for a safer pair of hands running the sport than Allcroft.
But that doesn’t mean the Yorkshireman isn’t prepared to try things in a bid to push the game forward.
“We have not had any significant rule changes in the last few years, not since the introduction of the 40-second stop clock for scoring in 2008,” he explained.
“Personally I would like to create a better way of making rule changes happen and then them being trialled in the best possible way – to find out if they work or not.
“We are starting to get more and more people wanting to watch the game so how can we make it a better experience?
“You could say we have more important things to focus on but, ultimately, it is about the sport – what happens in that 28 x 15 metres.”