THE opening of the Tunbridge Wells skating rink in Calverley Grounds was marked by a very special performance from the Canterbury Hellfire wheelchair rugby team taking to the ice.
Tunbridge Wells Borough Council approached the club, which is part of Canterbury RFC, asking if they wanted to promote the sport – also known as Murderball – which is played at the Paralympics.
Veteran player Brian Pitchford relates: “We said yes and then took a couple of days to think about how we could grab people’s attention. And I came up with the crazy idea of getting the chairs on the ice rink and trying to play a game.
“After a short discussion the organisers agreed – but I’m sure in the background there were a few heads shaking, thinking this will never happen, as there was among the GB rugby family.
Brian believes that this has never been done in the UK before, ‘indeed I can’t find any footage of it happening anywhere in the world’.
‘To have chairs hitting each other or passing a ball whilst on the ice was always going to be a gamble’
He adds: “Within our squad I was the only one who had ever taken my chair on ice when I was invited to the try curling at the Fenton’s centre in Tunbridge Wells.
“So I knew that it was possible to move around the ice but to have chairs hitting each other or passing a ball whilst on the ice was always going to be a gamble. I think it’s one that paid off.
“We tried to keep to the rules of the game but as there was no court lined out and no shot clock it was really played in the spirit of the normal game.
Brian hailed the evening as a great success. “We would love to try it again – and as a sport for the future. If the Winter Olympic committee would like to discuss it with me I would be very pleased to fly out anywhere in the the world for the meeting.”
Wheelchair rugby was invented in Canada in 1977 as a mixed sport combining elements of ice hockey, handball and rugby – the first of which stood the players in good stead this time around.
The game combines speed, chair contact and tactics. Eight rolling substitutes make up squads of 12, with four players per team at any time. It is played on a hardwood court, and the aim is to drive the ball across the opponents’ goalline.
Players use their chairs to block and hold opponents. As with ice hockey, they can be used to stop opponents who do not have the ball.
‘If the Winter Olympic committee would like to discuss it with me I would be very pleased to fly out
anywhere in the the world’
However, dangerous contact between such as striking another player from behind with excessive force is not allowed.
Canterbury is the only club in Kent which offers wheelchair rugby. They are coached by Steve Brown, who captained Team GB at the 2012 Paralympics in London.
Murderball was first demonstrated at the Atlanta Paralympics of 1996 and then became a -competitive sport in Sydney four years later.
To be eligible, athletes must have a loss of function in both upper and lower limbs. Most athletes have a spinal injury but there are many others with a wide variety of medical conditions.
Canterbury Hellfire contested their first campaign in Great Britain Wheelchair Rugby’s Super Series in 2014-15, and won every game as they acheived promotion and won the National Shield.
Last season they won promotion to the top flight and were also runners-up in the cup competition.
One of their players, Ollie Mangion, has been chosen to represent Britain at the European Championships, and hopes to be selected for the Olympics in Tokyo in 2020.
David Barber and Harry Langley were also called up for the GB development squad.
Hellfire train on Wednesdays from 6-9pm and on Sundays from 1-4pm at the Canterbury High School. For more information, visit www.cantrugby.co.uk or email Brianpitch@btinternet.com