The French town of Vichy is most famed for being the capital of the Nazi occupied French State in World War Two from 1940-44. Located in central France near the city of Lyon, Vichy is a historically rich town which dates back to the emergence of the Roman Empire under Julius Caesar. Located just 90 kilometres from the rugby stronghold of Clermont Auvergne, Vichy will merge both history and rugby this week as it hosts the first ever wheelchair 7’s rugby union 6 Nations.
Wheelchair rugby 7’s is rugby union’s venture into the world of para-athletes. Unlike the (in)famous game of wheelchair rugby known as ‘murderball’, the wheelchair 7’s has lineouts, scrums, drop-goals, mauls and everything else you associate with the game of rugby union. The techniques and skills on display will be as close to those you see in Twickenham or Murrayfield with the key differences being if a player is penalised for not rolling away, it will be in the literal sense. Wheelchair 7’s is a mixed gender fully inclusive sport which does include able bodied players also. I was surprised to learn just how many people are itching to try their skills on a knee scooter, a new addition to the sport, albeit not widely used yet. 7’s Will be the third variety of wheelchair rugby with wheelchair rugby league making up the last of the three-o.
The matches will be played on a court that measures 40 meters x 20 meters, each side will have seven players including a hooker, lock, flanker, scrum-half, centre, wing and fullback. Tries are scored in the same fashion as always, players must cross the line and touch the ball down. Penalties and conversions are taken by basically punching the ball – similar to how you would see a hand-pass in GAA or the technique used in volleyball. The ball itself is a regulation size 4 rugby ball, unlike murderball which uses the rounded ball, basically the same as you would see on a volleyball court. Each side can make 3 substitutions and have a squad of 12 to select from.
It is the first time ever a tournament like this will take place, all six sides taking part are relatively new to the game so it is a real possibility the trophy ends up in any of the countries possession. The para-athletes who will be representing each country have been selected by the nations coaching set up and will go wheel to wheel in a bid to make history. Most of the teams have come together since April and May in a bid to gel and nail down the tactics that could see them crowned champions at the end of the tournament and come home with the ‘La Belle Betty’ trophy. Anyone who thinks this will be a nice and gentle sporting occasion is sorely mistaken. The competitive nature in these teams is evident in their DNA – the teams consist of rugby enthusiasts, Paralympians, para-athletes and able bodied sport fans who have come to the fore in a bid to seek out a new competitive challenge. The matches will run for two 40-minute halves and with the fixtures all being completed within a week you can be assured that the fitness levels on show will be second to none. The back to back fixture list will also serve to spice up the competitive nature as no sides will have a moment to dwell on results as they turn to the next task ahead.
Ireland’s Graham Merrigan will fly out to France with his team-mates on Monday, before the tournaments opening round of fixtures on Tuesday. Merrigan told ITL; ‘I can’t believe I am going to represent my country in a competitive sport – something I never thought I could achieve being a wheelchair user.’ Merrigan has dabbled in wheelchair sports for the past few years, from handcycling to basketball and others in-between. The Dublin native is optimistic and has promised that it will be a week he, his family and friends never forget. ‘We’re going out to France to make history’ he says, ‘and by next Sunday we’re going to have something to cheer about!’ Merrigan’s optimism and passion are infectious, his repeated mantra of ‘Clear eyes, full heart, can’t lose’ is rooted in his determination and conviction that Ireland will return from France as 6 Nations Champions 2013.
Meanwhile in the English camp there is a quiet confidence brewing ahead of the tournament. Besides their squad being littered with talent from wheelchair basketball and wheelchair rugby league, England have a close nit family feel amongst the squad who include a father and son duo, two sisters and a boyfriend girlfriend couple. Martin Beddis has played both murderball and wheelchair rugby league and now adds being player coach of the England 7’s to his honours. His son will also be lining out for England in what is to be a proud moment for father and son alike. Beddis believes England may have an advantage in being able to call upon the wheelchair skills of his squad who have played competitively in both wheelchair rugby league and basketball.
The tournament has been endorsed and supported by the 65-time-capped French winger, Christoph Dominici. Now a coach at Stade Francais, Dominici played for France between 1998 and 2007 scoring 25 tries for Les Bleus. It could have been 26 had he not famously dropped the ball while attempting a one handed placing having crossed the try line against Italy in the 2004 Six Nations. Dominici retired from playing in 2009 and took up a coaching role with this year’s Amlin Cup runners-up, Stade.
France will play Italy in the opening fixture of the tournament, with Ireland playing Wales and the day being rounded off with England going wheel to wheel with Scotland. Each day the action will begin at 3:00 pm and the other matches taking place at 5:00 pm and 7:00 pm. The teams will come together on Monday when they are all due to fly out and arrive for the tournament. You can track the progress of the tournament through social media, both Facebook and Twitter will provide the outlets for match tracking and live updates. Tournament organisers, players and coaches are hoping to see a large presence on social media and are encouraging fans to share the countries crest and send messages of support.
You can follow the action and athletes on Facebook & Twitter:
Tournament Information: http://www.facebook.com/sixnationsfauteuil.ovaliefauteuil
Graham Merrigan on Twitter – www.twitter.com/Merriganmania
England Wheelchair 7’s: http://www.facebook.com/England7sWheelchairRugbyUnion