Words by: Ian Golden in Myrtle Beach, sponsored by Sporting Records Online Ltd.
Pic: Andrew Corbett, Relyks Media.
Wales are ready to face USA this Friday night at John T Rhodes Sports Center in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, USA in what will be the first ever Wheelchair Rugby League match to take place in the Americas (kick-off 7pm local time, midnight GMT).
It’s the first of two matches that Wales will play in consecutive days with the two teams facing off again on Saturday at the same venue (kick-off 3pm local time, 8pm GMT). Both matches will be streamed live on https://www.twitch.tv/usawhrl. Live scores will be available throughout each match at https://rugbyleague.wales/wheelchair-fixtures-and-results.
The matches are the main events of the inaugural The Beers of America – Adaptive Sports Festival, where matches in Wheelchair Basketball, Adaptive/Wheelchair Pickleball, Wheelchair Tennis, and Goalball will take place over the two days.
The Welsh side warmed up for this tour by beating the Army last month in Cwmbran. They have been in the USA since Monday evening and have been training since Tuesday. Today, the captain’s run took place at the venue, and head coach Alan Caron was impressed with what he saw.
“We’ve had a run-through of the things we want to do in the games,” he said. “The captains are happy, the vice-captains are happy, the players feel really good, so fingers crossed it’ll be a great first game tomorrow, I’m looking forward to it.
“We need to look at how we started against the Army and then review and see how we move forward. We’ve had a couple of good days here training and we can put these little things that we worked on in the Army game, into the matches against USA.
“This is an amazing venue here in Myrtle Beach. It’s like three or four leisure centres in one, literally it’s an eight-court basketball facility. You’ve got volleyball facilities. Each court is about four or five times the size of our leisure centres back home. It’s a fantastic area as well, it’s very flat so good for wheelchairs, the beaches are lovely and the people are friendly. It’ll be an amazing place to hold a World Cup in the future.”
Wales have taken over a squad of ten for the two matches. Up until last year, a Wheelchair Rugby League international match was played with five starting players and five substitutes, but the number of substitutes has now been reduced to three, with a “ninth player” named and can only be used if another player fails a head injury assessment. Caron has delayed naming who is being left out of his Wales line-up until the afternoon of the match.
However, Harry Jones is expected to add to his Wheelchair world record of 43 caps, all consecutive. Jodie Boyd-Ward, who is on 42 international caps, having also played for Ireland and England in her career, will co-captain the side along with Gary Preece.
Scott Trigg-Turner and Andrew Higgins are both close to reaching 50 international tries, having scored 48 and 47 respectively in their Wales career, with Higgins on a Welsh international record 449 points so far.
Wales will find it tough, despite them being the more experienced of the two sides. In the only previous encounter between Wales and USA, which was in the group stages of the last World Cup in Sheffield in 2022, Wales won 50-32, but they were made to work for their victory having come from behind as USA led for the opening half an hour.
The Wales Wheelchair Rugby League side has been in operation since 2012 and they’ve since played 51 full international matches, playing in three World Cups, reaching the semi-finals twice, and have won seven Celtic Cup trophies.
For USA, Jesse Lind takes over the captaincy following the retirement of Jeff Townsend and Micah Stewart is handed the vice-captaincy. Mack Johnson, selected in the 2021 World Cup (played in 2022 due to the Covid-19 pandemic) “Team Of The Tournament” will be looking to make a similar impact, while Chayse Wolf is set to debut having recently been invited to trials for the USA Wheelchair Basketball side. Other newcomers are Lisa Maddox, Justin Hall, David Roemhildt and Devin Perry.
The USA team has a strong association to its Armed Forces, with seven of the side – Andy Kingsley, Lind, Freddie Smith, Maddox, Hall, Gabi Cha and Jabrier Lee – all being veterans.
USA Wheelchair head coach, Geoff Mason, commented:“We are very much looking forward to the international series against a very strong Welsh team that is ranked third in the world. Our pool game in the 2021 World Cup was a hard-fought affair. Wheelchair Rugby League is in its infancy here, but we believe that this series will greatly increase its profile and development. Our future going forward is to move towards a domestic competition after this series.
“My squad contains a mixture of World Cup players who have shown significant improvement and some newcomers, and we are ready for the series. Besides the games, we have worked with Wales to use their tour as a way to increase coaching and referee development here. There have been clinics and sessions throughout the week to impart skills and certifications to our local coaches and officials. We shared a hotel with the Welsh at the World Cup and developed a strong friendship and camaraderie with them and very much look forward to catching up with them again as we all grow towards the next World Cup.”
Lead referee for both matches will be Kim Abel of the Leigh Referee’s Society and Wales, who officiated in the last World Cup, and the assistant referee is Tampa Bay-based Peter Garlando, an experienced rugby league player and referee in the “running game” who will be officiating Wheelchair Rugby League for the first time. Abel, along with Wales Rugby League’s head of Wheelchair Development/tour team manager Stephen Jones, have been running the match officials and coaching courses over this last week to assist the development of Wheelchair Rugby League in the USA.
Jesse Lind (Ft Jackson Blackhawks), Micah Stewart (Raleigh Storm), Gabi Cha (Houston Hellraisers), Mack Johnson (Charlotte Lions), Chayse Wolf, Devin Perry (Columbia Kangaroos), Bill Johnstone, David Roemhildt (Savannah Eels), Andy Kingsley (Myrtle Beach Marlins), Tony LeBoutillier (Greenville Raiders), Jabrier Lee (Ft Bragg Raptors), Freddie Smith (Wilmington Wolves), Justin Hall, Lisa Maddox (Augusta Bulldogs).
1 Stephen Halsey (North Wales Crusaders)
4 Mason Baker (North Wales Crusaders)
5 Alex Powell (Torfaen Tigers)
6 Andrew Higgins (Hereford Harriers)
7 Martin Lane (Wigan Warriors/Torfaen Tigers)
9 Gary Preece (Hereford Harriers, capt)
10 Jodie Boyd-Ward (Leeds Rhinos, capt)
11 Harry Jones (North Wales Crusaders)
12 Scott Trigg-Turner (London Roosters)
14 Phillip Davies (Hereford Harriers)