EXCLUSIVE: "Rugby Changed My Life" - Wheelchair Rugby Academy Star Toby Church's Great Britain Goal - Ruck

EXCLUSIVE: “Rugby Changed My Life” – Wheelchair Rugby Academy Star Toby Church’s Great Britain Goal

One of the world’s fastest rising spectator sports, wheelchair rugby will once again be at the forefront of the sporting landscape when the 2024 Paralympic Games come to Paris. Originally known as ‘murder-ball’, this high-octane disability sport has been the source of a life changing journey for young Great Britain Academy Pathway player Toby Church.

Born with a rare condition that caused his knees and hips to develop irregularly, Church was wheelchair bound at an early age as it simply became too painful to walk under his own weight. An animation student at the Arts University of Bournemouth, you would be suprised to know that such a funny and relaxed exterior, encases a hard-hitting battler that explodes to the surface when he crosses onto the court.

Image Credit: Toby Church

Church calls wheelchair rugby ‘violence with class’, and there is no understating the love that the sport has brought to the young man from Bournemouth. Speaking in an exclusive interview with RUCK, Church discussed how he learned to love the physicality of wheelchair rugby, after a self professed ‘trial by fire’, courtesy of Team GB legend Aaron Phipps. Church was on the receiving end of a heavy hit upon his first training session with the national squad, which took none other than Toby’s father by surprise. Church has since returned the favour to help break in the sport’s newcomers, as he has since taken up a more senior role at the Solent Sharks’ at training sessions.

“My dad said he wanted to kill him! I’d never done anything like that before. He was like ‘you’re just trying to hurt my kid, like what the f***?’ Then, Aaron came up to me and said, ‘that is the hardest you’re ever going to get hit. You don’t need to worry about it, you’re fine.’

“Then after that, that was pretty bad, but it wasn’t awful. Most of the time, what you do is in rugby, if you see someone coming in for a big hit, you turn so they hit you on the wheel. Because all the momentum just gets sapped up by the wheel. But what you kind of worry about is, you sometimes get these big beefy guys, they smack you and your wheelchair just goes (over). So you have to go against your instinct, because you’ve got to brace your fall, otherwise your arms are going to be screwed. So, you just have to embrace the impacts and fall over.”

“Every time we get a new person, because sometimes recently, we get a new person who’s around my age or perhaps younger, so I take on that mentor role. I would just be like, ‘look, I know you’re scared. It doesn’t matter’. Like a big brother type thing. Because the whole perspective I take is that ‘I know you’re scared to do this, but I’m going to hit you, and you’re going to hit me. Like it’s not gonna go anywhere, just enjoy it.’ It’s fun, it’s good. Trial by fire, It works!

Image Credit: Toby Church

“Every time we get someone new, unless they’ve expressed it beforehand, explicitly, we kind of take it to them, to ease them into it at the very beginning. Then once they’re used to it (the physicality), once they play in a game with them in, you don’t even think about who’s in the chair. You just kind of think, ‘Oh, I’ve got them now’.

“Whenever anyone gets a brand new wheelchair, and it’s all shiny and new, and not scratched, we descend on them like piranhas! Everyone tries to get in the way, trying to get in the first hit, the first like dent, we just descend like that, it’s quite funny.”

Image Credit: Toby Church

Church is a young man with unmatched enthusiasm for life, and he does not let his disability stand in the way of a fruitful social life. Not confined to being mollycoddled by carers, Church instead views his wheelchair as a ‘permanent skateboard’, that he utilises to bring an extra sense of adventure into his every day life. Given the physicality of wheelchair rugby, Church is well versed in riding the heavy hits, yet understands the aversion from the public should he fall out of his makeshift mountainboard, when he eyes up a steep downwards hill.

“Yeah, that does happen. What you’ve got to look out for is like, potholes or cobbles you know, cobblestones and paved streets and stuff. Oh my God, it is painful. You’re just trying to come and go down this street, so I try to avoid those the best we can. I kind of have to slow down when I reached them. The worst ones are the potholes.

“Because you’d be flying along and everything’s fine. Then suddenly you’re on the floor and you’re like ‘oh sh*t’. But luckily I’m pretty decent at putting myself back up. People always freak out if they see it. They’re like ‘oh no, someone help him!’, and I’m like, ‘I’m fine’. This happens all the time. I just kind of pick myself back up and get going again it’s really not a big deal.”

Toby Church (number 4) with his Solent Sharks teammates. Image Credit: Toby Church

Wheelchair rugby is the highlight of Church’s week, with as he is steadily progressing throughout the Great Britain pathway ranks. With his starring role at the Solent Sharks club, Church has also attended numerous Team GB camps where he continues to ply his trade. In a different fashion to rugby union, the age that wheelchair rugby players tend to progress into the international scene is far later on in their career.

With the likes of Gavin Walker (aged 40), Aaron Phipps and Jonathan Coggan (both aged 41) taking starring roles on the court today, Church understands how he must ply his trade and wait his turn, until his on-court heroes pass the torch to him for the next generation of GBWR.

“My pathway is very much still going. To be honest, all the guys in GB, they’re like, what mid 30s or early 40s. So it’s a long, long, long road. And for me, I think, because I’m in the NDC (National Development Camp), at the moment, it’s basically the national group before… you’ve got the NDC, and you’ve got the development group proper, the proper League.

“So I’m in NDC, at the moment, just while I’m in uni, just because it’s a way I can keep my head in the door. But also, like, maintain my studies and things because at the moment, I just want to get my studies out of the way. Because once that is done, I can probably push for it and hit the gym and everything, push with the development and things.

“Because what GB do is you have NDC which is like, every other month, you come together and train together and they check your progress and see how they do in stats, and things like that. And then you have development camps, which are for the proper elite players, but if there’s like a drop out or something, and they think you’re (ready), they’ll see how you’ll adapt to the environment.

Image Credit: GBWR

“You get invited up there, (Lilleshall National Sports Centre), this big old hall. It’s a proper like three day, eight hour a day of rugby, just constantly under like a constant match-up, against everyone else. It’s completely different environment. I like it a lot, I kind of thrive off the challenge of improvement. But it’s been a while for me since I’ve done one of those since I’m you know, trying to bash out Uni and get that out of the way, but hopefully more in the future anyway.”

“That’s like life goal for me at this point. 100%, rugby’s changed my life, like full on it actually has. Because when I was 13, and I started this, I didn’t really go out much, I didn’t, I certainly didn’t go to the gym. I didn’t even… I was a twig. The good thing about rugby is you, come across different types of people, but they are all in the same boat as you.”

Image Credit: Solent Sharks

A central part to Church’s life, wheelchair rugby has provided him with some lifelong friends whom have formed their own family unit. Openly expressing the challenges which he faces as a disabled person, Church admitted how he can struggle emotionally when motivating himself for the day ahead. However, his teammates all understand the mental obstacles that are faced, and can be the perfect outlet of support for the aspiring GB wheelchair rugby player.

“Sometimes, some days you don’t want to get up, like ‘what’s the point’, we’re already at a natural disadvantage. Like ‘why is life like that’. But, everybody here (at wheelchair rugby training) doesn’t want to get up, get on with it. It’s a really good environment, because everyone kind of just jokes and you feel at home with it.

Image Credit: Solent Sharks

“Because you don’t have to explain yourself every time. Because, not that nobody cares, but everyone’s like, ‘Oh, we’re all disabled here. join the club.’ I think, from them, it’s really one of the only place I’ve ever felt like home.

“Like I say it a lot, these guys are like my proper family, because I’ve been with them since I was 13. I grew up around them. It’s cool. yeah. I turned 21 a couple of weeks ago, and everyone at the club was saying ‘how the hell are you 21’ and when you turned up you were this small little thing.”

Church, alongside his Solent Sharks teammates Tom Price and Harvey Zahab, are tearing up the divisions. Church has come through the ranks with his colleagues, and the trio keep pushing each other to perform at their best in training sessions. Church wishes to one day wear the Union Jack upon his jersey, and represent Team GB alongside his Solent Sharks teammates.

Image Credit: Solent Sharks

“There’s about three of us now, who we all started around the same age as me, 13. Me, Harvey, Tom and some other guys. We’ve gone through the ranks together a little bit, because we both started to go into youth competitions and things like that.

“We didn’t know what we were doing, and now we’re all older and we’re all going to these GB things, and we’re all going to all these pathways and things, it’s a really nice feeling. Because, you know, it’s like having your best mates beside you, but in a professional setting, it makes you better. I think it just makes me happy to be honest. It’s just good.”

Image Credit: Solent Sharks

“I think it’s a bit of that competitive banter type thing, they make you want to be better and they definitely want to be better than you. So you kind of just give each other sh*t. But after rugby, you know, it doesn’t actually count. They don’t actually want to beat you up! Like we make each other better. Because like we give each other advice as well.”

“Especially when we’re on a team together, because in training you have made up matches. The coach makes two teams play each other, and whenever we’re on the team together, a lot of the communication is instant because we know each other so well. We know the plays and we know where each other are going to be.

“So we can just kind of do it. It was really weird for me because I’ve never been in a team sport where you can just do something, and then one of your teammates immediately knows what they’ve got to do. It goes beyond, it’s just nice.”