Wheelchair Rugby: A beginner’s guide

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If you’re searching for a dose of Rugby action from now until the World Cup quarter finals on Saturday, then the inaugural BT World Wheelchair Rugby Challenge might be right up your street.

The competition gets underway this evening at the Copper Box Arena, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, London and will finish on Friday October 16. Eight teams will be taking part, including hosts and European champions Great Britain. Also competing will be Paralympic and World Champions Australia as well as Canada and the United States, who were the 2012 Paralympic silver and bronze medallists respectively. France, Japan, New Zealand and South Africa make up the rest of the teams in the competition.

A Brief History

Wheelchair Rugby was created in 1976 by five Canadians to be a sport for people who were diagnosed with Quadriplegia, an illness which causes the partial or total loss of use of all their limbs and torso. The sport was originally called “Murderball” due to its aggressive, full-contact nature and in 1981, it was introduced south of the border to the USA, where its name was changed to Quad Rugby (it was still called Murderball in Canada). Outside of North America, the sport was officially called Wheelchair Rugby.

The first international Wheelchair Rugby tournament took place in Toronto, Canada in 1989 before it appeared at the World Wheelchair Games one year later as an exhibition sport. In 1993, the International Wheelchair Rugby Federation (IWRF) was founded in the same year that the sport was officially recognised by the International Stoke Mandeville Wheelchair Sports Federation.

Two years later, the first IWRF World Wheelchair Rugby Championships were held in Switzerland. It appeared as a demonstration sport at the 1996 Summer Paralympics in Atlanta before gaining full medal status four years later in Sydney.

There are 25 active countries playing Wheelchair Rugby (plus a few “developing” nations) with the most successful being the USA, who have won three Paralympic golds (including the “demonstration” gold in 1996) and four World Championships


Wheelchair Rugby is played indoors on a hardwood court (the same size as a normal basketball court) by two teams of up to 12 players, although only four per side are allowed on the court at any given time. Matches are divided into eight four-minute periods and if it’s a tie after normal time, three-minute overtime periods are played.

A goal (worth one point) is scored when a player carries the ball across the opposing goal-line, providing which wheels of the player’s wheelchair are over the line while they have possession of the ball. However, a team has 40 seconds to score a point or else they are forced to concede possession (similar to shot clocks in Basketball). They also have 12 seconds to advance the ball across the half-way line and a player with possession of the ball has 10 seconds to either bonce or pass it.

Physical contact between wheelchairs is allowed with a few exceptions, such as striking another player from behind. Direct physical contact between two players is also against the rules and could result in either a one-minute penalty, a loss of possession or a penalty goal.


The wheelchairs are custom-made to withstand the crashing hits which take place frequently during the course of a game. All chairs include a front bumper (designed for smashing into other wheelchairs) and spoke protectors, which protect the wheels from damage.

Unlike its able-bodied cousins (Union and League), the ball is spherical and based on a volleyball, only it’s more inflated to make it bounce better.


In 2005, a critically-acclaimed American documentary film called Murderball centred on the intense rivalry between the Canada and USA teams leading up to the 2004 Paralympics in Athens and featured players from both sides. It was nominated in the Best Documentary Feature category at the 78th Academy Awards and was named the top sports movie of all time by film review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes.

The BT World Wheelchair Rugby Challenge will be shown in the UK on ITV4 between Monday and Friday.

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