It was an exciting year for wheelchair rugby in Victoria, with the launch of Australia’s first Junior Wheelchair Rugby Program, strong performances from Victorian representatives at both the Santos National Championship and Wheelchair Rugby National League, and a highly competitive Protect Victorian Wheelchair Rugby local season.
Our Junior Wheelchair Rugby Program included two come and try events, followed by an eight-week training program and Junior Showcase Match prior to the Victorian Senior’s Grand Final. The program provides a platform for players aged 6-14 to learn from experienced coaches and develop their skills in a supportive environment. Thanks to the generous donation from our valued sponsor, Protect, the players were able to access brand new sports chairs and start their wheelchair rugby journey, with many youngsters already setting their sights on representing Australia at the 2032 Paralympics in Brisbane.
Photography: Matt Morden [Image ID: There are four junior players in sports wheelchairs, pushing in the same direction up the court. One player has placed the ball on his lap while pushing the chair. They are smiling and wearing white and blue t-shirts with both the Wheelchair Rugby Victoria and Disability Sport & Recreation logos on the front. There is a spectator standing in the background near a Protect pull-up banner. The game is taking place on a light coloured wooden floor.]
Victorian Wheelchair Rugby Head Coach, Andrew Harrison, said it was incredible to see how much the juniors got out of the inaugural program.
“Each week they had smiles from ear to ear and their laughs were infectious. During the sessions, we introduced the kids to the different skills needed for wheelchair rugby, such as bouncing the ball, passing techniques, and safe pushing of the chairs”, Harrison said.
“You could see a massive change in their confidence by the end of the program, and they’re already itching for next year’s program to start”, he concluded.
At senior level, Box Hill Rugby Club and Melbourne Unicorns flew the flag for Victoria at the three-round National League series, made up of tournaments in Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney. The Melbourne Invitational kicked off the National League for 2023, with over 60 players heading to Cobblebank Stadium for the three-day event. The National League featured a number of Australian Steelers and allowed our senior players to test themselves against the best athletes in the country. Following the final round in Sydney, Melbourne Unicorns and Box Hill finished in 3rd and 4th place respectively, with University of QLD crowned 2023 champions.
Photography: Nerissa Byrne [Image ID: The Box Hill and Melbourne Unicorns teams are lined up in their rugby chairs on the light coloured wooden court, smiling at the camera. The players are sitting in two lines in front of green signage that reads Wheelchair Rugby National League, and blue signage that has the Protect, Disability Sport & Recreation and Wheelchair Rugby Victoria logos.]
The best senior players were then selected to represent Victoria Protect Thunder at the 2023 Santos Wheelchair Rugby National Championship at the Gold Coast. After taking maximum points and topping the Division 1 group, Victoria Protect Thunder continued their dominant display, defeating Queensland Cyclones in a thrilling Semi Final match up and progressing to the Grand Final. In what has been described as the highest quality Gold Medal match to date, the Thunder equalised against NSW Gladiators at the death to send the game into overtime. It was a remarkable match that kept everyone on the edge of their seat, with NSW Gladiators securing the final victory in overtime by just one point.
Photography: Stephen Tremain [Image ID: The Victoria Protect Thunder team is lined up beside the NSW Gladiators team in the centre of the court, with players seated in their rugby chairs. Thunder players are wearing navy blue and white jerseys, and NSW players are wearing lighter blue jerseys. There is roughly 50 people standing in the grandstand behind them, with red signage in the background that reads Australia's Gold Coast.]
Locally, the 2023 Protect Victorian Wheelchair Rugby Cup was held from 10th July – 23rd September and featured returning clubs, Box Hill, Harlequins, Melbourne Unicorns and Power House. The regular season games were played on Monday evenings at Aqualink, Box Hill, with the final series taking place at Narrandjeri Stadium in Thornbury. It was another strong season featuring current and former Australian Steelers players.
Power House proved their dominance as competition frontrunners early on, and managed to continue on an undefeated streak for nine rounds straight, only to fall to a defeat against Melbourne Unicorns in the final round of the season. Unicorns finished strongly in the back end of the season, securing second place and lining up a Semi Final showdown against third place, Harlequins. The Quins only just locked in third place by ladder percentage, after finishing on the same number of points as Box Hill in the regular season.
The top two teams, Power House and Unicorns met in the ultimate Grand Final encounter, with Jayden Warn leading the Unicorns to a 35-29 victory and causing an upset against an experienced Power House outfit. In the Bronze Medal playoff, Harlequins and Box Hill were out for bragging rights after their close finish in the regular season. In what was a hotly contested match up that could have gone either way, Harlequins narrowly edged out Box Hill with a 33-31 win.
Photography: Matt Morden [Image ID: One Power House player is contesting for the wheelchair rugby ball, with a Melbourne Unicorns player on either side of him. The Power House jersey is bright green with black and white stripes, while the Melbourne Unicorns jerseys are a darker green with yellow trim. The game is taking place on a light coloured wooden floor, and there is another Power House player in the background further up the court, as well as two seated spectators wearing black and red shirts.]
In recognition of their consistent and outstanding performances throughout the 2023 Protect Victorian Wheelchair Rugby Cup season, we congratulated the following award recipients:
MVP - Jayden Warn (Melbourne Unicorns)
Best Low Point Player - Jason Lees (Power House)
Best Mid Point Player - Antonio Vecchio (Box Hill)
Best High Point Player - Brad Dubberley (Power House)
The full tournament recaps can be found here: