Six rugby union-affiliated teams from around Australia including two from Victoria competed against each other at Cobblebank Stadium for the Melbourne Invitational to unveil the nation's best wheelchair rugby club.
The results of the remaining two rounds at the Sydney Slam and Queensland Bash will prove who is the best team in Australia. If they are anything like the Melbourne Invitational, then we are in for a feast.
To recap the Melbourne Invitational, we have picked our top five moments.
5. National representation
Wherever you are in Australia, there are people that will welcome you to the wheelchair rugby community. Although the Melbourne Invitational featured teams from only Victoria, New South Wales, and Queensland, players were invited from across the country to take part.
Western Australian players, Darren Cuomo (Melbourne Unicorns) and Taye Williams (University of Queensland) put themselves through quarantine on the way home to compete in the inaugural event. From the other states, young prospect Tai Martin-Page (Tuggeranong Vikings) flew from South Australia, and development coach Dave Wood and debutant Rubie Gallagher (Sydney University) journeyed to the mainland from Tasmania. Even a recent code-switcher and decorated Paralympic Swimmer, Blake Cochrane, came on an overnight flight from Queensland to top-up Tuggeranong Vikings’ numbers following Simon Bartlett’s hand fracture.
[Image ID – Tasmanian player Rubie Gallagher playing wheelchair rugby in her sports wheelchair for Sydney University at the Melbourne Invitational.]
Photo credit: MP Dannefaerd Sports Photography
The efforts these athletes make are significant to wheelchair rugby’s national program. To continue playing despite border restrictions keeps the rugby community connected and allows the game to expand across the country. Disability Sport & Recreation and Wheelchair Rugby Victoria are appreciative for the sacrifices these players have made and the support from their state sport and recreation bodies to allow them to play.
Within Victoria, the game is growing across regional areas. Christian Brackley from the Melbourne Unicorns drives two-and-a-half hours each way on Monday nights from Echuca to Box Hill to play in our local competition – the Protect Victoria Wheelchair Rugby Cup. To reduce travel time and keep fit at home, he started a team in his area – the Murray River Razorbacks. Christian leads a monthly come and try day in Echuca where everyone is invited. Through this program, Shaun Harper (Melbourne Unicorns) and James McQuillan (Box Hill Broncos) were introduced to the game. Both debuted at the Melbourne Invitational.
[Video ID – a video of Melbourne Unicorns wheelchair rugby player Christian Brackley speaking about his involvement in the Protect Victoria Wheelchair Rugby Cup competition and his local come and try days with the Murray River Razorbacks in Echuca. Whilst Christian is speaking there is a montage of accompanying wheelchair rugby footage featuring Christian.]
4. University of Queensland’s dominance
[Image ID - University of Queensland player Chris Bond playing wheelchair rugby in his sports wheelchair at the Melbourne Invitational.]
It was the University of Queensland’s (UQ) weekend. The team remained undefeated throughout the three days in a flawless display with their smallest winning margin being a staggering 15 points.
Throughout each play, you felt the control of UQ. Player/coach and Melbourne Invitational MVP, Chris Bond led from the front. His presence alone caused panic amongst the opposition. His closing speed and unrelenting stamina held him a calibre above the rest of the playing group.
UQ’s fast scoring allowed sound organisation in defence. Opposition teams often use all their timeouts before half-time as the likes of Mick Ozzane and Matt Thompson had locked onto their high-point players before the transition.
An advantage of this National League format is seeing new lineups on court. When Bond rotated onto the bench, UQ’s depth shone. Developing players Izzy Evans, Connor Tweedy and Taye Williams seized their opportunities on court. Over the five matches, progressively we saw Bond coach on the sidelines as the youth were entrusted to get the desired result.
[Image ID - University of Queensland player Taye Williams playing wheelchair rugby in his sports wheelchair at the Melbourne Invitational.]
UQ currently holds first place on the National League ladder following the Melbourne Invitational. They will be impossible to catch should they keep this undefeated streak. Yet, with only one win separating them and the Melbourne Unicorns and Ryley Batt to be added to the Sydney University lineup, expect to see some exciting fixtures at the Sydney Slam.
3. Franchise frenzy
The future is bright for rugby. The response to the franchised format of the rugby union and wheelchair rugby teams has been astounding. The Melbourne Invitational oversaw teams beginning their wheelchair rugby connection and others strengthening it.
For both New South Wales and Queensland, this event was the first time their rugby union teams (New South Wales: Sydney University and Tuggeranong Vikings; Queensland: University of Queensland and Brothers Rugby Club) have expanded to wheelchair rugby. This shows the successful implementation of the system in Victoria.
In Metropolitan Victoria, four teams (Melbourne Unicorns, Box Hill Broncos, Power House and Harlequins) all compete in the Protect Victoria Wheelchair Rugby Cup. The support from these clubs and Rugby Victoria has been tremendous since its start in 2017. And it continues to grow to this day. We are looking forward to seeing how this new pathway improves the local competition where our top two teams will feature in the National League.
The rugby union affiliated clubs love seeing their teams compete on the national stage. In Victoria, representatives from Rugby Victoria, clubs Melbourne Unicorns, Box Hill Broncos, and their respective supporters Future Recycling and MoneyQuest – Mont Albert all came to cheer on their teams.
In preparation for the Melbourne Invitational, the Melbourne Unicorns hosted a ‘Wheelchair Rugby Club Day’. This entailed a National League jumper presentation for the wheelchair rugby players in front of the senior men’s and women’s playing group, and an all-inclusive wheelchair rugby training clinic and exhibition match.
The day holds significance with it being the first of its kind. As Melbourne Unicorns senior men’s rugby player David Tui shared, the crossover day helped us understand how “the game of rugby extends beyond the playing field and onto the court.”
[Video ID – a video of Melbourne Unicorns senior men's rugby player David Tui speaking about his experience at the Melbourne Unicorns Wheelchair Rugby Club Day. Whilst David is speaking there is a montage of accompanying footage of the day of every participant playing wheelchair rugby.]
2. A fresh Steelers’ lineup
More matches at a national level means more players will be exposed to higher standards of competition.
In the week leading up to the competition, a crop of rising wheelchair rugby athletes were invited to the inaugural ‘Emerging Talent Camp’. For three days, the game’s future stars were introduced to training in a high-performance environment at Paralympics Australia’s shared facilities at the NEC Hangar.
[Image ID - an overhead group photo of all players, coaches and staff at the wheelchair rugby Emerging Talent Camp inside the NEC Hangar.]
The results from this camp were instantaneous. Several camp attendants were the top performers at the Melbourne Invitational with three of the four players in the team of the tournament (Ben Fawcett, Andrew Edmonson, and Justin Goh) participating in the camp.
In the presentations following the Melbourne Invitational, Australian Steelers’ coach Brad Dubberley delivered a special announcement. Dubberley revealed the national team that will be flying to Texas later this month. The make-up of this team was dictated by the players’ performance at the camp and Melbourne Invitational with an intention to expose fresh players to international competition.
Of the 12 announced on the day, seven will be representing Australia for the first time. The debutants included Emilie Miller, Jayden Jackson, James McQuillan, Luke Matthews, Cam Whittaker, Connor Tweedy, and Justin Goh. They will be joining Richard Voris, Andrew Edmonson, Ben Fawcett, Chris Bond, and Shae Graham with more to be announced.
1. How far can he Goh?
Only hearts of stone would not have been moved by the reactions of players, staff, and family as they congratulated an emotional Justin Goh on making the Australian Steelers lineup.
Goh’s rise in the sport over the past year has been exponential. The young Victorian wheelchair rugby athlete has become a crowd favourite with his infectious smile. His blonde-tipped hair matches his white-hot passion on the court. Opposition players find him a nightmare to play against with his unyielding pressure and lightning speed.
[Image ID – Two people playing wheelchair rugby at the Melbourne Invitational. University of Queensland player Matt Thompson is in possession of the ball at the front of the image. Thompson is looking at the corner of his eye at Box Hill player Justin Goh in the background closing him down.]
It is a pleasure watching Goh on the court and it is no coincidence that his surname suggests that he is going places.
[Video ID - a video of Box Hill Broncos wheelchair rugby player Justin Goh speaking about his experiences at the Melbourne Invitational, Emerging Talent Camp and addition to the Australian Steelers lineup. Whilst Justin is speaking there is a montage of accompanying wheelchair rugby footage featuring Justin.]
Thank you to all who came along or tuned into the My Sport Live livestream to support this game changing weekend. If you missed out, there are plenty more opportunities to see the most exciting sport on wheels this year. Check out our Wheelchair Rugby Victoria page to see upcoming games and events. You can also stay connected by becoming a DSR member for free and receive our monthly newsletter.