England, champions of the world. You only have to go back a few years since wheelchair rugby league was being played in empty sports halls. So here in Manchester, as almost 5,000 people watched England win the Wheelchair Rugby League World Cup on home soil, with the nation having taken this incredible sport to its heart, it was hard not to feel a little moved.
It was Tom Halliwell’s try three minutes from time which ended France’s grip on the trophy, having beaten England by narrow margins in the 2013 and 2017 finals. The world’s two best sides were never more than eight points apart all evening but in the end, it was England who won a thrilling, compelling final.
Hopefully the sport, which has felt like the world’s best-kept secret given how it has burst on to the scene in the last few weeks, can now head to even greater heights. Because any aspiring young players – this sport is for disabled and able-bodied players, for men and women of any age – could not help but be inspired by the likes of Halliwell, Jack Brown and Seb Bechara.
“I cannot fathom what’s happening for this sport right now,” Tom Coyd, England’s head coach, said. “Wheelchair rugby league is going to explode. Get down to your nearest club and play it. This could be you next.” How right he is. And how hard it was not to be inspired by the sheer brilliance of these athletes.
France led 14-12 at half-time, with tries for Brown and Halliwell being cancelled out by scores from Lionel Alazard and Mostefa Abassi, with a penalty from Nicolas Clausells the difference. But a brilliant try from Lewis King and another stunning solo effort from the outstanding Brown put England eight ahead.
The drama was just beginning though. France levelled it at 22-22 before Nathan Collins and Clausells exchanged penalties to make it 24-24. Just as it seemed as though the World Cup final was heading for extra time however, Halliwell stepped up and broke through to score the try which delivered the World Cup.
The best players ever to play wheelchair rugby league may yet not have even started doing so. But they will take this magnificent sport up determined to follow in the footsteps of these England players who have delivered a World Cup on home soil. It has been a gamechanging few weeks and for England supporters, it has the happiest of endings.