Victoria Thunder capped off a successful 2021 Wheelchair Rugby National Championship, reaching the Semi-Final at the Gold Coast Sports Leisure Centre.
The Thunder narrowly lost the Grand Final spot decider to the Queensland Hurricanes 46-52 in a tight contest to conclude their gallant championship campaign.
The Gold Coast played host to the country’s best teams as they battled it out across three-hard fought days of competition to be crowned the 2021 National Champions.
Victoria Thunder Head Coach David Phillips was proud of the team’s performance.
“We did incredibly well,” Phillips said.
“We are very proud of all the players, staff and families.”
It wasn’t all smooth sailing for the Victorians, who were thrown a spanner in the works hours before the National Championship was scheduled to start.
COVID regulations, due to Victoria’s impending lockdown, forced Victoria’s second team to be sidelined. Players and staff were told the heartbreaking news, upon landing in Queensland, that they were not allowed to participate or attend the Championship.
“We had to re-group,” Phillips said.
“We’re a tight-knit group and there’s a lot of support there. We helped one another through those decisions.”
“Everyone who did qualify to take the court did exceptionally well and did Victoria proud.”
Victoria Thunder opened the tournament in strong fashion, defeating the Queensland Cyclones 54-48 in a composed performance. The Thunder dropped Game 2 to the red-hot NSW Gladiators, having no answers for the world-class combination of Ryley Batt and Andrew Edmonson.
Victoria returned on Day 2 in style, with strong team chemistry, defensive positioning and attacking play helping to defeat Queensland 59-41. They then took it up to NSW in game 4, pushing the Gladiators all the way, before ultimately falling short 45-56.
The stage was set for a blockbuster semi-final against Queensland on Sunday. The Cyclones were quick to score in the first half and held a lead throughout the entire match, despite many late pushes by the Thunder. Two-time Paralympic gold medallist Chris Bond “made the difference” for Queensland, playing an exceptional game and leading his team to a narrow victory.
The NSW Gladiators convincingly defeated the QLD Cyclones in the Grand Final to be crowned 2021 National Champions.
Ben Fawcett (named in the All- Australian Team as best low pointer of the tournament), Jayden Warn (who was “reliable as ever”) and the 20-year-old Thomas Klein were Victoria’s standouts over the weekend.
Another strong performer was experienced Victoria Thunder player and two-time Paralympic gold medallist Jason Lees.
“It was our first tournament playing as Victoria for two years now,” Lee’s said.
“We played quite well. We had little patches where we didn’t perform as well as we could’ve. That’s probably what cost us in that semi-final.”
“Queensland is a great team; we always have very close games against Queensland. On the day, they were just better than us.”
“It was a bit disappointing, but that’s how sport goes.”
The National Wheelchair Rugby Championship shaped up to be the biggest in the sport’s history, with world-class teams competing and a landmark broadcast deal with Kayo streaming the National Championship into households all over Australia.
“The weather was quite nice, and the venue was absolutely beautiful,” Lees said.
“On the final day they had a huge crowd. The Gold Coast Sports Leisure Centre was a great venue for Wheelchair Rugby.”
“A lot of players families back home were tuning in and especially everyone in lockdown in Victoria had the opportunity to watch it.”
“I know my wife had it on for six hours and the kids loved it.”
“It was really good to see some mainstream coverage of wheelchair rugby. Hopefully, that is something that will continue.”
Many of the Australian Steelers team were rivals this weekend, in one of the last chances to compete before defending their title at the Tokyo Paralympics.
Several Victorian’s will be hoping to be named in the Paralympics squad alongside Lees, including Shae Graham, the first female athlete to represent Australia in wheelchair rugby, and Box Hill Rugby Club’s Tom Klein.
“The national championship was a great stepping stone into the Paralympics,” Lees said.
“All the Steelers players were there and performed quite well.”
“We’ve got a training camp coming in July with the whole team in Darwin, where they will name the team.”
“From there, we’ll head over to Tokyo for our final preparations.”
For Jason Lees, a third Paralympic gold medal in his glittering career would be the most special of the lot.
“All going well, Tokyo will be final Paralympic games.”
“Obviously, I’m hoping to get a good result there and finish my career on a high.”
“All going well with selection and the games going ahead without any hiccups, we will be trying to win that gold medal that we want.”
2021 GIO Wheelchair Rugby National Championship Results – Victoria Thunder
Game 1 - Victoria Thunder 54 d Queensland Cyclones 48
Game 2 - NSW Gladiators 55 d Victoria Thunder 46,
Game 3 - Victoria Thunder 59 d Queensland Cyclones 41
Game 4 - NSW Gladiators 56 d Victoria Thunder 45
Semi Final: Queensland Cyclones 52 d Victoria Thunder 46