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NSW Blues Wheelchair  RL team are fit and firing

It’s been a long two years but the NSW Blues Wheelchair rugby league team are fit and firing and ready to take on Queensland in a bid for five Origin wins in a row.

The game – postponed from June last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic - will be played on 29 January at the Whitlam Centre at Liverpool at 3pm. Entry is free. 

“It’s not hard to keep this group of guys motivated. They’re always keen to get out there and perform and play. We have a good team culture,” said NSW coach Edie George.

“We’ve been able to maintain contact with team meetings via video links and we had a state camp before lockdown last year, where I was able to pick my final 10. We are back training now – had a session last weekend and have a few more booked in.”

George said spectators are in for a real thrill.

“There is an intense speed to the game, and spectacular crashes. You’d be amazed how some of these players take a beating, but get back in their chairs and play on,” he said.

Wheelchair Rugby League was first developed in 2000 by two French players. It started in Australia in 2010.

A team of 10 is selected with four AB (able-bodied) players allowed, But only five players (including two AB) are on the field at any time.

NSW Wheelchair Rugby League (NSWWRL) runs competitions in three districts: Western Sydney, Southern Sydney, and the Northern Beaches.

The NSW Blues side is: Brad Grove, Brett Henman, Cory Cannane (AB), Craig Cannane, Diab Karim (AB), Eddie Morgan, Jason Attard (AB), Liam Luff, Rick Engles, Tim Robinson (AB).

The rules closely mirror the 13-a-side running game but obviously without tackles, scrums, or traditional “between the legs” play-the-balls.

Players must pass backwards, possession changes after six tackles, the ball must be grounded on the try line or in-goal, and the points-scoring system is the same.

Conversions, penalty goals and drop goals can be “kicked” by punching the ball over the posts using the fist (in a manner similar to an AFL hand pass).

Players are tackled similar to OzTag – by defenders removing an attacking players’ velcro tag worn on the shoulders.

The “field” is half the size of the running game – 50m x 25m – or across three indoor basketball courts.

NSW Blues co-captain Craig Cannane, 48, began playing in 2011 for the St George Dragons. He has been to two World Cups (2013 England, 2017 France) and currently plays with his 25-year-old son Cory Cannane.

They have both made the NSW team and the goal is to play together in the 2022 World Cup in England this November for the Wheelaroos.

But first the Queenslanders this month to extend the run of four Origin wins – the last being in 2019 with the pandemic cancelling the 2020 and 2021 games.

“We’ve just been playing down here longer. It all really started in Sydney so it’s just taken the Queenslanders a little longer to catch up. But it’s growing massively up there now,” Cannane said.

Cannane played lock and five-eighth for Marrickville RSL, before his motorbike accident in late 1992 where he broke his back.

“So when I had my accident the game didn’t exist at that stage. Although now a paraplegic I was still highly motivated, so I played some wheelchair basketball,” Cannane said.

“Then Rugby League was introduced to me by one of my basketball teammates and that was life-changing. I love Rugby League – it was my passion – and I thought I’d never play it again.”

His Dragons team has won seven premierships in 10 years – the past four in a row.

“When I wheeled out onto the court for the first time, everything that was locked in the back of my head from being an able-bodied player, just came rushing in. It’s the same feeling – I just wheel around the court now rather than run,” he said.

Doors open at 1pm on 29 January, with a “Come, Try and Play” session being held as a curtain-raiser to the Origin match so people of all ages and both sexes can have a go.

“What I like so much about the game is how inclusive it is,” George said. “We have young kids, adults, fathers and sons, brothers and sisters and able-bodied players all combining so well and enjoying their sport.”