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Australian Steelers officials have moved to ensure there is no complacency after the team’s incredible win at the World Championships last year, selecting a side for the Japan Para Wheelchair Rugby Championship that includes three players hot on the heels of some of the side’s more experienced campaigners.

In their first hit-out since they defeated the US 58-55 in the final in Denmark in October, the Steelers had a rough start to the Championship on Thursday, going down to the US 53-47 and to France 58-49. However, the bigger picture is about creating an extended list of talent ready for selection if any key players become unavailable before the Paris Games, which start on August 28 next year.

“We’re building experience and depth and making sure we can handle anything that pops up for us to deal with,” said Paul Kiteley, Paralympics Australia’s wheelchair rugby National Performance Director.

“This becomes a very important stage in our preparation for Paris because, instead of just having 13 or 14 athletes ready to play at the highest level, we want to make sure there are 18 to 20 athletes pushing really hard, showing good form and keeping everybody really honest. That will put us in a good space.”

The chance to play at the Japan Para Wheelchair Rugby Championships – which features the US, France and the hosts – has given coach Brad Dubberley the chance to blood next generation players: Australian U23 basketball player Brayden Foxley-Conolly, six-time Para-swimming medallist Blake Cochrane and Tokyo 2020 Para-athletics bronze medallist Robyn Lambird. World Championship players Ryley Batt, Mick Ozanne and Ella Sabljak remained in Australia.

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“It’s just about learning, really,” Dubberley said after the loss to the US in Game 1.

“We gave up some simple turnovers, some from our newer guys. Brayden came in and coughed a couple up, but I’m really excited to watch his growth over the next couple of days.

“For someone young like that, no doubt it stung him, but he’s going to get a lot of opportunities this week to improve and prove himself. This is what it’s about – taking opportunities when they’re presented.

“Blake came in and did some good stuff as well. But, again, he was just lacking function against some of those US players. Robyn had some good minutes and did really well.

“It’s exciting to see some new faces and build some depth as we move forward.”

Dubberley was more pleased with the effort against France.

“At least we improved in this one, but it’s been a tough day,” he said. “Hopefully we continue to improve and give it a crack tomorrow.”

Apart from being a good chance to test new combinations, the tournament will give the Steelers a fresh insight into Japan, who they are likely to play-off against at the the Asia Oceania Championship in June, where the first opportunity to qualify for Paris 2024 will be up for grabs. If they failed to win there, the Steelers would enter a repechage closer to the Games.

Kiteley said the team wanted to secure qualification as soon as possible.

“It would mean plenty of opportunities for camps like the one we had in January, where we had 18 athletes, including our experienced players and our next important priority athletes,” he said.

“They got some really good minutes with the more experienced Steelers and it was actually a follow on from the Shibuya Cup tournament, where we sent a development side.

“Our camps will be like that from now on, a mixture of the key current national team members with an extended list of players who are in the mix for the next campaign. That’s how we’re going to conduct things.”

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By: David Sygall, Paralympics Australia
Posted: 3 February 2023