The Leeds Rhinos Wheelchair Rugby League squad gathered on Tuesday night for their first training session in more than 12 months as the sport prepares to finally make its comeback.
In what promises to be a landmark year for the sport, the Rhinos side will be looking to make up for lost time after seeing their entire 2020 campaign curtailed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
That meant no matches, no training and almost no rugby activity for the players, who were unsurprisingly relieved to finally get back on the pitch at Morley Leisure Centre this week, albeit for some basic non-contact training in line with the first step of the RFL’s ‘Return to Play’ guidance.
For club captain James Simpson, who was one of several Rhinos players invited to an England Wheelchair elite training camp in Sheffield last week, the opportunity to get his team back together again and turn attentions to the upcoming domestic season could not have come sooner.
“For our first training session back in 14 months I thought the atmosphere was awesome and everyone turned up feeling really positive,” said Simpson, an ambassador for the 2021 Rugby League World Cup.
“It’s been so long since we pushed our chairs as a club that everyone was delighted to get back out there and start the new season on a high. It’s been tricky because at the moment we can’t use balls, we have to stay really far apart and build our fitness again, but it’s reminding people that we need to stay switched on to the safety measures and we’ll slowly get there.
“At club level we finished 2019 on such a high winning the Challenge Cup and going unbeaten in the regular season, so we just want to get back out there, put on some good performances and get back to where we were.
“From a game perspective though by time the World Cup Final finishes I want Wheelchair Rugby League to be on everyone’s mind, with people having watched us play in the Challenge Cup Final or the World Cup which will help to grow the sport’s popularity.”
Rhinos return to action on Sunday 22nd May with a friendly game to be confirmed, a week before they kick off their 2021 Wheelchair Super League campaign in one of three regional sections being adopted by the competition.
For health reasons the Wheelchair Rugby League season will be played over ten weekends, with teams playing shortened games in regional groups to maximise game time and use of venues.
There will be six teams in the Super League, with the Rhinos joined by the senior teams from Argonauts Skeleton Army and North Wales, plus the 2019 Challenge Cup winners Leeds Rhinos, newcomers Hull FC and Leyland Warriors representing Lancashire.
After lifting the trophy in 2019, the Rhinos will also begin their defence of the Betfred Wheelchair Challenge Cup on Sunday 5th June, with the competition also being played within a condensed ‘festival’ format ahead of the showpiece final, provisionally scheduled for Saturday 3rd July.
Looking ahead to the new season, Leeds Rhinos Wheelchair club chairman Andy Gardner said: “It’ll be tough starting games after just two proper training sessions in 14 months, but we’ll try get them back up and running and tone up their fitness to have them ready to go.
“It’s a different season with less games and new teams, but the target remains to beat our competition and hopefully win a league and cup double.”
“It’s not just about sport though, it’s also about social interaction and making memories together as a team, so it’s been hard for them without having that and it feels good to see them back together. The players are disciplined enough to have done exactly what we’ve told them to look after themselves and for the international players even some of their equipment throughout the break which is something we’ve not asked before, so I’m really proud of them.
“Our team are a tight group and we’ve had 12 down today to the first session, but we are welcoming new players and always looking to build our numbers, hopefully by introducing a development team and junior teams down the line.
With the Leeds Rhinos Wheelchair Rugby League side now up and running for 2021, places are still available each Tuesday with training sessions currently running from 7-9pm.
To get involved or for more information, please contact email@example.com or call 07769938798.
Find the club on Facebook at www.facebook.com/LeedsRhinosWSC/