Wednesday, December 8

Wheelchair Rugby League’s James Simpson: ‘I want them to be inspired’ | Rugby league

TFor many of those who know him best, James Simpson is an inspiration. Even a superhero. But in his own words: “I am simply James Simpson, the rugby player.” It is a remarkable display of humility on the part of a man who will be one of the stars of Sunday’s wheelchair Challenge Cup final.

While serving in the 1st Battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment in Afghanistan 12 years ago, Simpson lost both legs in the explosion of an improvised explosive device. He finished his career in the military, but it didn’t stop his spirit, drive, and determination. If anything, it strengthened her purpose to make the most of life.

“It’s life altering, but it doesn’t end at all,” says Simpson. “I never let that moment define me. He didn’t want to be known for having injuries. I’m not James Simpson, the guy who lost his legs when a bomb exploded. I made sure I created my own path. “

Nine years ago, Simpson, a childhood Leeds Rhinos supporter, discovered wheelchair rugby league, a sport in his childhood. “At first it was just for fun,” he says. “I was 20 years old, I didn’t know anyone in my life who was disabled other than my fellow soldiers. Suddenly, I’m surrounded by guys who have been disabled their entire lives. Fast forward nine years and the game has become incredibly competitive. I am almost a professional athlete these days. I eat, sleep and live the game, and it has given me great purpose in life. “

Simpson insists that it is the people he plays with on a weekly basis who inspire him, not him. Take Nathan Collins, the Leeds and England gamer who was born with dwarfism but has gone on to become one of the stars of the wheelchair game. There are also many other examples. “In our game, we don’t really notice it because we’ve all had a journey,” Simpson says. “We have boys who have suffered life-altering injuries and some who have been disabled from birth. I love that everyone has a story. “

Those stories will be on full display on Sunday on the BBC website and on iPlayer, when Leeds aims to retain the Challenge Cup they won in 2019 when they face the Argonauts of Kent in the final at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield. Last year’s national campaign was knocked out by Covid-19 and this fall’s wheelchair World Cup, like the 13-player men’s and women’s tournaments, was delayed to 2022. However, it is typical of Simpson that it remains pragmatic and positive about the future of sport despite setbacks.

England's Wayne Boardman is tackled by Wales's Gary Preece during an international friendly in Sheffield in June.
England’s Wayne Boardman is tackled by Wales’s Gary Preece during an international friendly in Sheffield in June. Photograph: Charlotte Tattersall / Getty Images

“Don’t get me wrong, I was furious when it was canceled,” he laughs. “But I got over it, because I knew we had to prepare for this cup final. We have played two games a day in the Super League and this weekend is a monumental moment. I just want everyone to see how good this game is, and this is the opportunity. A few years ago, someone who was standing on the side of the field with a phone was streaming the games on Facebook. We are now at the BBC. Is incredible.”

This is the first wheelchair club game to receive this platform, but interest is increasing. A clip of an incredible try scored by former England international Harry Brown recently went viral, being shared by Adam Hills and Johnny Vegas, among others.

“I watch games from when I made my debut, and it really wasn’t that good,” he says with a smile. “The standard now is incredible and the game has evolved. When we started, it was mostly wheelchair basketball players playing rugby … you didn’t see a lot of rugby-isms. Now we are all rugby players with rugby experience.

“Now I am 35 years old and I have to work very hard to meet the demands of the highest level. You have to do it because all the main players are in their early 20s. These are the stars of the future, and these are the guys who will take wheelchair rugby to the next level. “

The World Cup is a crucial moment for rugby league in this country, especially for wheelchair play. He has made considerable strides forward in recent years, and Sunday’s cup final shown by the BBC is another huge leap forward. But this is far from the end of Simpson’s journey. “I want the next big international star to not even be playing this sport yet,” he says. “I want you to tune in on Sunday and be inspired. See that everything is possible and that you can practice sport whatever happens.

“The World Cup is not the end. I want to grow the game even more. It should be the launch pad for the game. For those of you who haven’t seen the sport before, all I would say is tune in. They’ll be shocked. “For someone who’s been through so much, that’s high praise for Simpson. Perhaps it would be wise to heed his words and give wheelchair rugby league a shot on Sunday. You won’t regret it.

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