“It has the power to change lives”, says Physical Disability Rugby League England International.
As the action kicked off, you’d be excused for thinking there were only three Rugby League World Cups happening this year. The Men’s, Women’s, and Wheelchair competitions have been equally backed by the RLWC2021, with record attendance, and all games broadcast by the BBC. The three teams had successful campaigns going into the semis, but only the Wheelchair team advance to this weekend’s finals.
But in case you missed the news, one England team have already lifted the trophy in this World Cup…
The undefeated England Physical Disability Rugby League (PDRL) team won the first ever PDRL World Cup competition just two weeks ago, after beating New Zealand 42-10 in the final.
What is PDRL?
– An adapted form of Rugby League for ambulatory disabled players
– International classification is based on Paralympic criteria
– Involves three categories of disability denoted by sock colour, as well as contact and noncontact rolls
– Backed by ex England International Shaun Briscoe, comedian Adam Hills, and commentator Andrew Voss
Having only launched as a sport in England in the last few years, there’s forgiveness as to why the World Cup hasn’t received the same level of backing as the other three competitions, according to England’s leading try scorer, Nick Kennedy. “The planning for this World Cup started before PDRL was off the ground in this country, so we get why our World Cup hasn’t been at the forefront. The fact the RLWC2021 managed to organise the competition is a huge testament to them, and we’re beyond grateful that they made it happen, especially with the BBC coverage of our game at this elite level. But now we need to capitalise on that win, to build a legacy for the sport, and get more disabled people involved in it”.
As the host nation, England had high hopes for their performance across all four World Cups, and with one trophy secured, Kennedy hopes the RLWC2021 organises will use Friday’s Wheelchair final, and Saturday’s Men’s and Women’s double header final, as a platform to promote PDRL.
“This sport completely changed my life” says Kennedy. “After losing my arm in a motor accident, my mental and physical health took a huge dip. But I went down to a training session with Castleford Tigers in 2018 and never looked back. It was actually the sister of one of my England team mates that originally recommended PDRL to me, so it’s come full circle as we lifted that cup together”.
The game has been backed on Twitter by Australian pundit and viral internet sensation, Andrew ‘Vossy’ Voss, who wants to see the PDRL team get “a piece of the Old Trafford stage on Saturday”.
“I see no reason why we can’t make that happen” says Voss. “Play highlights on a Big screen at the very least and parade the trophy”.
Fans were in disbelief that the World Cup winners hadn’t been invited to any of the three other final games. “I thought this was supposed to be the “most inclusive World Cup ever”!?” questioned one rugby league fan. “The PDRL deserves more recognition for what was a fantastic tournament” was the response from another, with the sentiment echoed by many more.
“We’ve been asked repeatedly if we’ll be at the finals this weekend, but the truth is, we don’t know.” says Kennedy. “The squad hasn’t been told about anything being organised so far, and it’s only a few days away. Winning a World Cup on home soil is a once in a lifetime opportunity… I really hope the RLWC2021 can turn something around, and give us the chance to shout about PDRL to rugby league fans old and new, tuning into the finals.”
The PDRL competition kicked off on Sunday 23rd October, with teams from Australia, New Zealand, England and Wales competing to be the first nation to lift the silverware. The World Cup packed in four 50 minute games in just eight days, with teams facing a tight 48-hour turn around between most matches.
That didn’t phase the unstoppable England side though. They claimed their first victory over the Aussies with an emphatic 58 points to Australia’s 6. England’s Sam Zellar opening the scoring with a try after just three minutes, after a ‘world class offload’ from England number 13, Tommy Pouncey. It was followed up with further nine tries from the host side, including two from Kennedy, who took home BBC Sport’s Player of the Match.
Two days later, they took on the Wales team, beating them 32 points to 6, before a preview of the final against New Zealand in the last of the group stage games. The England team claimed victory once more, with a 50-2 win; the Kiwi side looking to be resting key players ahead of the final, having already earned their spot.
England repeated their success against the Kiwis in the first ever PDRL World Cup final, with over 2,000 fans watching on at The Halliwell Jones Stadium, and many more tuning into the BBC’s live coverage. The trophy was lifted by the England team through blood, sweat, and tears.
Wales finished up in third place, beating Australia in the play-offs, though not without a fight from the Aussie side, which included comedian and RLWC2021 ambassador, Adam Hills.
Hills has been instrumental in growing the sport in this country, and lived out his “boyhood dream” representing Australia. But he says “This will all mean nothing” if it’s not built on for the next World Cup, set to be hosted by France in 2025. “We’ve got to follow it up, we’ve got to make sure we do it bigger and better”, says Hills.
The impact of the inaugural World Cup is already starting to show, with the UK’s PDRL Super League having doubled in size since 2020. But they aren’t stopping there, says Kennedy.
“The growth is down to the World Cup buzz, and the hard graft of every back office staff, player, and supporter. And we’ve got to grow the legacy from our win. Medals mean nothing if we don’t get more participants into the sport. It has the power to change the lives of people with disabilities. It’s already done that for me, and I’m sure it has for all the other members of the England squad too.”
— Nick Kennedy 🦾 (@WhoNeedsTwoArms) November 15, 2022
There are talks of international sides being put together in Tonga and Hungary, as well as teams already in development in Scotland and Ireland. There are hopes France will put a team together, ready for hosting the next RLWC in 2025.
“Considering how strong their Wheelchair team is, I’m excited to see what they can do!” Kennedy adds.
Touted as the ‘most inclusive World Cup ever’, the Men’s, Women’s, and Wheelchair’s players are receiving equal payment for the competition. The PDRL team did not receive payment, and all of the coaching staff and support team worked on a voluntary basis, including Head Coach and ex-England International Shaun Briscoe, who called it a “privilege and an honour” to coach the England side to victory.
But it’s not the pay or the winning that’s the priority for the squad, it’s getting the word about PDRL out there.
“Lifting that trophy was incredible, but getting messages from people asking how to get involved with the sport is something you can’t put a price on. I’d love to represent England again in the next World Cup, but the real legacy would be not making the cut because we’ve had an influx of new, disabled talent into the sport”, says Kennedy.
For new players wanting to get involved, the RFL has contact details* for existing PDRL team, which currently includes: Bradford Bulls, Castleford Tigers, Hull KR, Leeds Rhinos, Leigh Leopards, Salford Devils, Wakefield Trinity, Warrington Wolves, Wigan Warriors. But Kennedy urges anyone wanting to get involved to reach out to their closest rugby league club and ask them to start a team if they haven’t already.
“The more teams we have, the better the level of competition, the more the level of awareness is increased, the more disabled people get involved. That right there is a true legacy”.