17 Oct 2019

Rugby World Cup: Wheel Blacks carving their own path in Japan

6:09 pm on 17 October 2019

The Wheel Blacks are currently in Tokyo for the World Wheel Chair Rugby Challenge, going down 60-46 to Australia in their opening game.

The New Zealand Wheel Blacks team in Tokyo.

The New Zealand Wheel Blacks team in Tokyo. Photo: RNZ / Joe Porter

The team though has already qualified for next year's Tokyo Paralympics, returning to the major event after an absence of more than a decade.

RNZ caught up with the team after yesterday's trans-Tasman battle and spoke with the players after the game, including paralympic swimming gold medallist Cameron Leslie.

The ninth ranked Wheel Blacks were well beaten by world No.1 Australia in their first game and while disappointed with the result, Cody Everson wasn't upset with the performance.

"It's always tough to lose to Australia, you never want to. But I thought there were some awesome patches in that game when we took it to them. That was the goal from the start - to make them respect us - and I think we did that."

The Wheel Blacks' second game is late tonight against the United States, with the medal rounds over the weekend.

This tournament is a dress rehearsal for next year's big dance, the Tokyo Paralympics, it'll be the first time New Zealand has been at the games since 2008.

"Beijing was the last time we went. I wasn't even in a wheelchair back then. For me, personally, and for the rest of the team - I think I can speak on behalf of the whole team - it is an amazing opportunity and we're going to make the most of it," said Everson.

The Wheel Blacks playing Australia in Tokyo.

The New Zealand Wheel Blacks playing Australia in Tokyo. Photo: RNZ / Joe Porter

It's not been an easy road for the Wheel Blacks, the team get very little funding and Cameron Leslie, who's also going to defend his paralympic swimming title at next year's event, said New Zealand's geographic isolation makes it particularly tough.

"It's an expensive sport. We live in New Zealand so it can be expensive to play against the top nations; you are talking about a trip to Europe. It's not cheap to get yourself there and then you have to put yourself up somewhere and to get regular exposure to that is a massive challenge for us. It can be a challenge that constant exposure."

Leslie will be in the pool and on the wheel chair rugby court at the Tokyo Paralympics making him one of just a handful of athletes to compete in more than one sport.

"I think it's going to be a challenge for me doing two sports that's for sure, but it's not new to me; we train week to week on two different sports.

"We have had over the years a few challenging transitions from rugby to swimming but we're well seasoned at it now."

Before tonight's showdown with the USA, the Wheel Blacks are meeting up with another team who're preparing for a big game - they're heading to the All Blacks training as the world champions get ready for this weekend's Rugby World Cup quarterfinal against Ireland.

It's something Wheel Black Cody Everson is very much looking forward to.

"The team's fizzing just to go and see the All Blacks, the best team in the world. We play a few hours after them so it is going to be a push for us, but this is something we want to do.

"The team looks up to the All Blacks and we are super excited to see them train, draw some inspiration and hopefully we can get a win."

The All Blacks will need to be mentally tough to get past Ireland this weekend, and there's no better team to draw inspiration from in that regard, than New Zealand's Wheel Blacks.

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