Wheelchair rugby fans witnessed the potential dawn of a new era when the Australian Development Squad featured a formation without males for the first time during the recent New Zealand National Championships.
In one of the few sports where males and females can compete in the same team internationally, wheelchair rugby still predominantly features males. But for how much longer?
Not long if the Australian Development Squad is an indicator of what the future holds.
Wheelchair rugby athletes are classified using a point system from 0.5 to 3.5 based on their physical function. Teams of four players can play with a maximum point score of 8.0, while the rules allow coaches to get an additional 0.5 point for every woman on court.
In the tournament’s opening match against Auckland, females Shae Graham, Ella Sabljak and Liliana Prucha and non-binary athlete Robyn Lambird etched their names in Australian wheelchair rugby history midway through the third quarter.
It gave the Australian team a total of 10.0 points on court, all within the rules of the sport.
Australian Development Squad head coach Jason Lees said the introduction of the line-up was not only a momentous occasion for PA’s high performance wheelchair rugby program, but for the entire sport.
“A great moment. Just really, really good to see,” Lees said.
“It just clicked. We knew that line-up was an exciting possibility heading into this tour and when the opportunity to run it came up, it just clicked even though all four had never played on court together.”
Your #WheelchairRugby Development Squad set to tour New Zealand next month.— AUS Paralympic Team (@AUSParalympics) August 22, 2023
The tour is an opportunity for squad members to stake their claim, with spots on the Steelers up for grabs ahead of #Paris2024: https://t.co/78Cep05xMG
📸: Megumi Masuda#ImagineWhatWeCanDo @ww_rugby pic.twitter.com/LYIJwRUqUX
Lees said that with each female player receiving an additional 0.5, the functional ability of the 10-point line-up presented a formidable challenge for the opposition.
“They forced a few good turnovers on the opposition and stretched our lead and got the job done.
“There was just so much speed out there and function. When the lowest classification player in your line-up is a 2.0 and their playing their fourth role on court, defensively that is a massive weapon.
“That makes it very hard for the opposition to match-up because there’s just speed, passing and defence everywhere.”
Asked whether it was a line-up that the Australian Steelers would feature at major tournaments in the future, Lees’ deflected the question, seemingly to not tip off his international rivals looking to bolster their own female contingents to gain a competitive advantage.
The answer seems inevitable though.
By: Tim Mannion, Paralympics Australia
Posted: 8 September 2023
Image: Robyn Lambird via Instagram