The eight best wheelchair rugby teams have gathered in Paris and, in a further sign that the city is the capital of world rugby right now, they will spend the next week competing for the International Wheelchair Rugby Cup.
The landmark tournament, which kicked off on Wednesday in a packed Halle Carpentier stadium, marks the first time World Rugby and World Wheelchair Rugby have collaborated to stage their premier competitions at the same time.
"This has always been a vision I’ve shared, with others, about how this event could look, how you could have these two rugby events within the same country and city," Richard Allcroft, World Wheelchair Rugby president, said ahead of the colourful opening ceremony.
"It has the potential to be transformational for the sport. We are fully aware this is a global event and the eyes of the world are on Paris and we are really excited to be part of that. Our partnership with World Rugby is really strong; actually we have been a partner of theirs for at least 15 years and it’s grown year-on-year."
More than 100 male and female players will take to the court during the course of 20 games over five days up to 22 October. The pool stage games and first round of knockouts take place at the Halle Carpentier stadium before the final day of play moves to the 8,000-seat Accor Arena.
It is the only full-contact para sport with four players on each side competing to score tries by crossing the opposition’s line while in possession of the ball. To qualify, athletes must have a disability that affects their arms and legs. Each team member receives a classification number ranging from 0.0, which indicates the least amount of physical function, to 3.5, indicating the most amount.
Wheelchair rugby has been part of the Paralympic programme since the Sydney 2000 Games and the chance to be a part of the wider sport’s biggest spectacle is a dream come true.
"Rugby is such a fantastic sport, just an incredible passion, history and tradition. For wheelchair rugby to be further and further integrated into that world is incredible," USA co-captain Charles Aoki said on day one. "Wheelchair rugby is a very exciting sport which most people have never heard of, so using the vehicle of the Rugby World Cup to elevate it is fantastic. It will do wonders for the sport."
In a ground-breaking partnership, local organising committee France 2023, are also supporting the tournament.
"Rugby is about sharing and being open to all people, rugby is a quintessentially inclusive sport," Jacques Rivoal, president of France 2023, said. "It was obvious, we must use the media power of Rugby World Cup 2023 to help wheelchair rugby, especially as the Paralympic Games are on their way and as wheelchair rugby is a Paralympic sport."
Paris 2024 being less than a year away undoubtedly adds an allure to the International Cup, with Allcroft hopeful the “wall of kids” who watched the opening match will be back in a year's time when the Paralympic title will be on the line in an iconic venue next to the Eiffel Tower.
World No.1 ranked side USA start as favourites and got off to a strong start by seeing off hosts France in their first match. But in a sign that there is very little to separate the world’s top eight, Canada disposed of Rio 2016 Paralympic champions and the world No.2 side Australia in the tournament’s opening game.
Whatever happens over the next four days – and tickets plus media accreditations are still available – the action will be spectacular and the stories inspirational.
"For me, it’s the contact," Aoki’s USA co-captain Eric Newby said with a smile. "I graduated high school, was on top of the world and then broke my neck that night. It was a huge 180 so I kind of had to re-learn how to live my life and through rugby I did that."