Norfolk Knights - modern day champions
A Lightning-fast clatter of wheels - spinning, screeching, stopping, colliding! Hands scrambling, straining – an ecstasy of fumbling – grasping, grabbing, grappling for the contested prize. Elbows mashing; teeth bared; elated crowds cheering as the precious ball leapt free from the melee: now swivelling high through the air, craning the necks of on-lookers and players alike, flying to a teammate at the far end of the court. It’s chaos to the uninitiated as players disengage and reengage, scrumming for the ball, zipping through the court, arms pumping as chairs spin and crash into each other. I thought I was witnessing something extraordinary but this was just another Saturday morning for the Norfolk Knights and their fans at the Wymondham Leisure Centre.
A one-legged man hurtles across the room in a specially adapted wheelchair, ball in hand, narrowly evading the opposing team. Abruptly, a rival slides into position to pounce. With encouraging yells from the crowd, she strikes! Wedging a bar into the wheel of the other player’s chair, she expertly halts her opponent’s victory, snatches the ball for herself – and spins it out to a teammate. With ingenious and exhilarating tactics such as this, Wheelchair Rugby is its own sport with a growing fanbase.
Although the 13 player members of the Norfolk Knights Wheelchair Rugby team face a wide range of individual challenges – including Spinal cord injuries; Amputation; Cerebral Palsy; M.S. and other neurological conditions – when they get into a rugby wheelchair everyone is equal and the fun is infectious.
However, as a disability sport, Wheelchair Rugby faces a unique set of challenges and constraints that can make it seemingly impossible to start a new team or league outside of the Paralympics. (Until recently, in order to be eligible to play Wheelchair Rugby at a competitive level, you needed to classify under a quite restrictive set of assessment criteria – requiring physical mobility impairment in at least 3 limbs – which excluded a great number of eager, disabled players.)
Unlike Wheelchair Tennis or Wheelchair Basketball, you can’t just get into your “day-chair” with a few friends and have an impromptu game of Wheelchair Rugby because it is a high speed, contact sport which requires specialist reinforced chairs. These chairs cost upwards of £3,000 each, which is out of reach for many individuals, and the sport must be played on an indoor court (typically a basketball court) in order to minimise equipment damage and personal injury – as it is not uncommon for chairs to be tipped over during gameplay.
Yet, for the Norfolk Knights, a grass-roots community club, this is what they set out to create and facilitate almost four years ago. With a lot of hard work, and with grants from the lottery, local authorities, and donations from local companies and able-bodied Rugby Clubs, the Norfolk Knights committee were able to raise the funds to buy 6 rugby wheelchairs, a trailer, and the other essential equipment necessary to run Wheelchair Rugby training sessions.
With the help of sponsors such as Chadwicks, the Norfolk Knights were finally ready to duel.
Last year, the Norfolk Knights competed in an all-new Wheelchair Rugby tournament known as the Wheelchair Rugby 5s (WR5s) summer tournament. This was set up by the Great British Wheelchair Rugby (GBWR) association with the express view to giving those players not necessarily classifiable for the Paralympic version a chance to play at a competitive level. While the WR5 tournament is designed to permit players with "less impairment" to compete, it doesn't exclude existing "elite" Paralympic or Super Series players from also taking part.
With competitive matches against the likes of Stoke Mandeville Maulers, Leicester Tigers and Northampton Saints, the Norfolk Knights eventually ended the tournament at an amazing 3rd place in Division 2 after wins over Stoke Mandeville, Brighton Buccaneers and Woodbridge Wheeled Warriors.
This year the Norfolk Knights will be competing again! You can catch this year’s tournament, which promises to be just as exciting, and support the Knights in person: find out more about this year’s competition and dates here on the GBWR website.
Coupled with the fact there are very limited existing opportunities for access to adult disabled sport in our county, the fact we have a Wheelchair Rugby club in Norfolk is extraordinary. The positive impact that playing Wheelchair Rugby can have on a person with any form of disability is transformative and the sport has quickly become a passion for every one of our members.
The positive impact on both the physical and mental well-being of mixed-gender wheelchair rugby players when they come together and take part is clear to see. This adrenaline-charged, mix-gender sport with a huge emphasis on teamwork and strategy, provides an opportunity to be active, competitive and social in a safe, inclusive and friendly environment, whilst allowing them to temporarily switch off from the day-to-day demands they otherwise face.
Norfolk Knights train at Wymondham Leisure Centre on Saturdays from 11am to 1:30pm and it’s open to anyone with a disability from the age of 18 who are interested in learning more.
The Norfolk Knights also encourage able-bodied volunteers to come along and join in the training, to become assistants, chair mechanics, coaches or even Wheelchair Rugby referees.