No holds barred: thrills and spills of 'murderball' whip crowd of 10,000 into frenzy
GB may have come out the loser, but their wheelchair rugby clash with the United States pulsated with excitement
The queues for the first-come-first-served seats were already in the hundreds hours before what has been dubbed the rock'n'roll of the Paralympics was under way.
The lucky crowd of around 10,000 who made it under the jagged white tarpaulin of the Basketball Arena for the opening match of the wheelchair rugby tournament, also quaintly known as murderball, were not disappointed. Great Britain lost, in the end, and by a fairly sizeable margin, to the USA, the world’s best team, but the game certainly had everything it had promised, if not the desired result.
In a loud, and edgy atmosphere, the two teams emerged to face and testily stare each other down, before the playing of the national anthems, and the score was already e1-1 even the first nine seconds.
“We came out hard. The crowd was loud. The Americans looked a bit shaken,” was the verdict of Great Britain’s Kylie Grimes, a giant Union Flag shaved, and dyed, into the side of her head, one of only two girls playing in the entire tournament. At the end of the first quarter Great Britain had a two point lead, but it wasn’t to last.
The sport has little in common with non-disabled rugby. It is played on a basketball court, with four players on each side, the ball - a volleyball - can be passed between the players in any direction, the object simply to carry it, in hand, over the opposition’s goal line. But there is one distinct, crowd-pulling similarity, and the crowd didn’t have to wait long to see it, and hear it too.
The rules governing contact are minimal. It’s open season. The sound of metal smacking into metal barely stopped reverberating around the arena all the way through the four eight minute quarters. Players from both teams were knocked sideways, frontways, and upwards. their wheels spinning like an overturned car, their arms waving like an upturned insect. They have to wait for two officials to arrive, who place a blue mat on the court, and flip them upright again. But a man sprawling on the ground, wheels spinning in the air, is not recourse to stop the match.
There was one moment, in the second half, when the USA’s captain Will Groulx was bearing down on goal line, only for Aaron Phipps, the star of the Great Britain show, to power across court, and with inches to spare smack into the front left side of his chair, sending him a foot into the air, and crashing down on his side,. The crowd couldn’t quite believe what they were seeing, and went wild with delight. It was, alas, deemed dangerous, and Phipps spent three minutes in the sin bin - a hefty penalty in a four a side game, but from a ticket holders’ perspective, it was worth it.
“I saw him making his move out of the corner of my eye,” Phipps said afterwards. “So I came across the goal. In my opinion I don’t think it was a flagrant foul. I didn’t endanger anyone. It stopped a goal. But it’s the referees call. But I didn’t do anything dangerous. I didn’t hit him from behind.”
If that was the biggest cheer of the game, the second was for the entrance on court of Kylie Grimes. Players swap in and out during the course of the game, like basketball, and Ms Grimes, 24, did not enter until the second half. The cheers were led by an extraordinarily large corner of the crowd wearing red wigs - the bit of Grimes’s hair that has not been shaved off to make room for the Union Flag, is also died red - and wearing “Team Kylie” T-shirts. Grimes lost the use of her legs diving into a swimming pool at a party when she was 18.
“My family wanted to stand out a bit, you know, show their support,” she said. “So they stuck red wigs on.”
Being the only girl on the team, doesn’t get her any favours though.
“All the players treat me exactly the same. If I’m playing sport with them that’s how it should be. There’s a few more in Britain in the league teams, it’s be nice to see more at the Paralympics though.”
Great Britain found it hard to break through the US’s defence, especially in the second quarter, when they scored only ten goals to the US’s 17, and the US often found it all too easy to find a way through GB, often simply lobbing balls over the top, like an American football quarterback. Phipps, jinked and weave through what gaps there were, a little like, Brian O’Driscoll, in non-disabled rugby. And Dave Anthony, with his big blue Mohwak, regularly burst down the line, like Rory Underwood, no one able to catch him. But the American’s consistency, and clever passing, almost always found a way through. They didn’t have to work as hard to score. The final score was 56-44.
“They had a bit more experience,” said Ross Morrison, a key passer of the ball in what seemed like Great Britain’s midfield. “They had more composure at the top level. Once they found their rhythm they moved away. Once you allow them to do that, it’s tough to come back from. They’re the number one ranked team. We played well, it was a great start, but we've got a lot more to give.”
The crowd undoubtedly loved the fast pace and the big hits. “It was just brilliant,” said Tim Hindes, who had queued with his friends for an hour before getting his seat. “There’s a bit of you, it you’re brave enough to admit it, that watches Paralympic sport and thinks ‘Oh, wow, they’re so brave. Look what they’re doing, after what they’ve been though.’ There wasn’t a second of that here. These guys just come out and kick the shit out of each other. They get knocked flying. They get turned back up and they turn round and go back for me. I thought it’d be brilliant, and it was.”
“People watch it for the first time they think it’s bumper cars with a ball,” said Steve Brown, Great Britain’s captain. “Once you understand the game a bit more, maybe chess with violence is how I like to describe it.
THere are now matches every day until the final on Sunday. Great Britain have France and Japan next, matches they will go in to as favourites. If they want to win a medal - they came fourth in Beijing and Athens - they will probably need to beat the USA again, or Australia or Canada, who are the top teams out there.
“The hits are tactical. They are to knock the opposition out of their chair, or stop them in their tracks. It gives you an advantage. YOu’re moving. They’re not. They’re on the floor. You’re not. It’s a numbers game.
I think I went over four times, maybe three. That’s about a normal number of tip outs. YOu give as good as you get. They like to hit hard. I like to hit hard. I knocked one or two out myself.”
Brown narrowly missed out on the Beijing Olympics. It was in 2005 that he fell off a first floor balcony while working in Cologne and was paralysed from the chest down.
“I’m not sure as I believe that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” he added. “But sometimes, missing out on things makes you more determined the next time.”
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