Tom Degun: There is a reason why wheelchair rugby is still known as murderball

Monday, 10 September 2012
Tom Degun_-_ITGWhen it first started, it wasn't called wheelchair rugby.

It was in fact known by the rather ominous name of murderball.

As the legend goes, murderball was introduced to the United States in 1981 by a man named Brad Mikkelsen.

With the aid of the University of North Dakota's Disabled Student Services, Mikkelsen formed the first American team called the Wallbangers. The first North American competition was held shortly after in 1982.

Several years later, as the sport began to grow internationally, it was officially changed from murderball to the far less sinister wheelchair rugby.

Fortunately, for fans of the hard-hitting discipline, the rules have remained virtually unchanged and the power, skill and sheer brutality that make it so incredibly watchable are still its core features.

During the London 2012 Paralympics, the sport was housed in the 12,000 capacity Basketball Arena on the Olympic Park and, as with most sports at these incredible Games, a full crowd was in attendance for virtually every match.

Steve Brown_Kylie_Grimes_David_Anthony_Aaron_Phipps_and_Mike_KerrSteve Brown, Kylie Grimes, David Anthony, Aaron Phipps and Mike Kerr of Great Britain's wheelchair rugby squad

I have encountered the sport several times in my career so far, including at a superb Great Britain exhibition match in the streets of central London not too long ago, but my busy schedule at London 2012 left me resigned to watching the majority of the wheelchair rugby competition on the giant monitors at the Main Press Centre (MPC).

However, there was one match that I refused to miss and that was the gold medal game.

I had been expecting to see a repeat of the Beijing 2008 Paralympic final, and indeed the 2010 World Championship final, where the United States had defeated Australia on both occasions.

However, a major shock in the semi-final saw Canada edge a dramatic 50-49 win over reigning Paralympic and world champions to claim a surprise final berth.

There were no such problems on the other side of the draw as Australia kept to the script with a comfortable 59-45 win over Japan to book their place in the gold medal match and set up an intriguing clash.

As I arrived at the gleaming Basketball Arena, which will sadly be taken down now the Games are over, there was an air of anticipation ahead of the match.

The US had just taken the bronze with a 53-43 win over Japan but a huge collection of green and gold shirts in the crowd showed that the majority of the 12,000 who were in attendance to see Australia march to glory.

Most of the green and gold shirts had "BATT 3" plastered across the back of them and for those who have any really knowledge of wheelchair rugby it is not hard to guess why.

Canadas Zak_Madell_L_crashes_into_Australias_Ryley_Batt_CCanada's Zak Madell (L) crashes into Australia's Ryley Batt (C) during the London 2012 gold medal wheelchair rugby match

The formidable Ryley Batt is still only 23-years-old but is already the veteran of three Paralympic Games, including London 2012, and has for several years been regarded as the best wheelchair rugby player on the planet.

His story is also a fascinating one.

Born without legs, Batt required surgery to separate his webbed fingers and until the age of 12, he did not use a wheelchair, preferring to move around on a skateboard.

He was finally convinced to use a wheelchair when he saw a demonstration of wheelchair rugby at his school and after taking up the sport later that year, he quickly became addicted.

His huge talent soon became clear and Batt became the youngest Paralympic rugby player in the world at the age of 15 when he went to Athens 2004. He returned to the Games in Beijing in 2008 to help the team to silver but London finally saw the Australian attend a Paralympics at the peak of his powers.

The gold medal match saw some huge collisions and heavy knockdowns that continually drew gasps from the crowd. But all the while, Batt appeared on a different planet. Try as they might, Canada simply couldn't deal with the pace and movement of the Australian as he constantly ghosted through their vicious defence with apparent ease to leave them bemused.

The giant Batt also proved a titan in the Australian defence, rarely coming off second best in a collision and making hits so big that the term "murder" looked like it might reappear in the official vocabulary of the sport.

Ryley Batt_10-09-12Ryley Batt celebrates winning gold in the mixed wheelchair rugby against Canada at the London 2012 Paralympic Games

He ended with an unbelievable 37 goals in the final, over half of Australia's points as they won 66-51, but Batt himself had not realised this in his one-man demolition job.

"Was it 37?" he told me in the mixed zone straight after the game with a smirk before quickly recomposing himself.

"It's a team sport though.

"It's fantastic to score goals of course, but the work of the boys out there who were screening for me, the low-pointers out there, the mid-pointers, high-pointers, they've all done a fantastic job, and they allow me to look good on court when they probably do all the work for me."

It was very modest of the wheelchair rugby star to say but the rest of the team, and indeed every wheelchair rugby player at London 2012, deserves huge credit.

They put on a pure exhibition of brilliant sport, which like its able-bodied counterpart, featured tactics, pace, power and, of course, the brutal hits.

As the show ended, I heard a small handful of spectators who had very much enjoyed the match, enquire why rugby is not at the Olympics as well.

I pointed out to them that the sport would be making its long-awaited return to the Olympics (having last appeared at the Paris Games in 1924) at Rio 2016 in the form of rugby sevens.

They seemed pleased and so they should be.

It promises to be a spectacular event, and with two servings of murderball in Rio in four years, rugby and wheelchair rugby could prove a show stealer in Brazil.

Tom Degun is a reporter for insidethegames
comments powered by Disqus