Wheelchair rugby is the most accessible sport in Sheffield according to its players – and if you experience one of the Eagles’ training sessions on a Wednesday night, you’ll see what they mean.
As well as the familiar sporting sound of shouts of players’ names and calls for the ball, you will hear the crash of metal on metal as the chairs collide and meet a range of people – old and young, disabled and non-disabled, male and female.
The wheelchair team is organised under the Eagles Foundation, which also looks after the women’s team and others.
David Butler, Chair of the foundation and a director of the club broadly, said that values like promoting accessibility and providing a space for everyone to play definitely trumps winning.
He said: “That is probably personified by the fact that our wheelchair team didn’t win a single game last year.”
“But as a result of our approach to development, we were one of the largest clubs in the country… and we consistently fielded a full squad of 10 players for each of our games.
“Our whole driver is to give people an opportunity to play rugby league, in a form that is suitable for them to play,” he added.
At their midweek training session, this seems to be the ethos of the players. It is about providing a space for everyone to play and grow and get better, rather than winning – although results are certainly picking up this season.
Vicky Brook, one of the players, is a former running rugby player, and said that at the age of 45, with “dodgy hips, knees, shoulders”, this is a “really good way of connecting with the sport”.
A big part of joining the team was due to her son Will, who has a lower limb condition and just got a grant for a chair.
She also joined with her daughter, who is not disabled but prefers wheelchair rugby to the running game.
Brooks said it was “brilliant” that the Eagles had taken them on board and added that it had worked out perfectly for the family.
She said: “It’s all inclusive and it doesn’t matter who you are, whether you’re non-disabled or you’ve got a disability of any kind.”
“Everybody is on the same level pegging, everyone can participate, and that’s just the beauty of wheelchair rugby league. It’s just amazing to think that anybody can have a go.”
This sentiment was repeated by Shaun Orton, the team manager and a player, who sees it as the “most inclusive” sport he’s aware of.
He said: “One thing I love about this sport, which you don’t get in any other sport that I’m aware of, is the fact that it’s mixed gender, it’s mixed age, it’s mixed ability.
“We’ve got non-disabled parents playing with disabled children, and disabled parents playing with non-disabled children, and what we’re not doing as a sport is saying to children, ‘you’re disabled, your friend is not disabled, you can’t play together’.”
This can also be seen with the sheer range of people on the Eagles team; people with injuries that prevent them from playing running rugby, people with disabilities that prevent them playing running rugby, and people who use wheelchairs full-time are all on the team.
Sheffield Eagles training session (Image: Joshua Thory-Rao)
Jack Johnson is a huge rugby fan, and attended the semi-final double-header for the wheelchair rugby world cup in Sheffield last year. He has cerebral palsy and loves the sport because it allows him to play rugby.
He said: “I just really enjoy playing.”
He added that it was really good to see the sport he played grow, referring to the buzz around the World Cup last year.
Chris Haynes used to do lots of running, biking, cricket and rugby but was in a biking accident a few years ago which stopped him doing sport.
He said: “Having found wheelchair rugby league it’s perfect, because it just gives you that chance to get some exercise.
“Sometimes it does hurt my knee. It’s definitely worth it, I really enjoy it.”
The sport also transcends age barriers. Stuart Wilkinson is 66 and the team’s oldest player, and started playing at the start of this year.
With club feet and atrophy of the leg muscles, he is not able to walk far and cannot run.
Wilkinson said he’d “always enjoyed team sports”, so wheelchair rugby league was “an ideal thing”.
Out of the four games played, the Eagles have won two, including their season opener. By two games in they had already scored more points than in the whole 2022 season.
Orton described the growth of the team during and since the 2022 season.
He said: “The team that we were at the end of the year was very different to the team that we were at the beginning.
“There’s some matches where we came a lot closer to winning than we would have at the start.
“In the off-season, we got our first draw, against Wigan…and then we got our second draw against Hull at the start of this year, before the season started.”
The team hopes to be in a position to apply for promotion to the Super League, the top division, in a few years time. Whether they will be good enough to compete at that level then, many players are positive.
Brooks said: “We’re only going to get better from here on in…in a few years time I think we’ll be a cracking team.”
The sport is seen as perfect for many people in many ways. For traditional rugby fans who cannot play due to disability or injury, it provides a way for them to take part.
For people who weren’t necessarily fans but want to be part of a team and get some exercise, it is also ideal.
Families can play together, and there’s the added bonus of a string of good results for the team.
For people with disabilities in Sheffield, playing wheelchair rugby league is a perfect option – and players and supporters say it is a great way to spend a Wednesday night.