South Africa is home to one of the world's top rugby’s teams. It's also home to Africa’s only national league of wheelchair rugby. But while wheelchair rugby is an amateur sport with limited resources, there is no shortage of dedication and determination.
The finals of the South African Wheelchair Rugby League mean the country’s best players literally get to crash things out on the court.
As a boy, Okkie Anker of Pretoria dreamed of becoming part of South Africa’s top rugby team, the Springboks. But he broke his neck during a high school match in 2011.
Now, he considers himself honored to have played twice for the Wheelboks, South Africa’s national wheelchair rugby team, and face off rugby's famous pregame challenge ritual.
“From the first day, I was just loving the game, and the contact and the adrenalin that pumps is almost the same than normal rugby. We faced the haka two times in 2013 and three times in 2015. … It was a great experience to still face the haka and then sing the national anthem,” Anker said.
Leratho Netchane is not only taking the lead during warmup, she became Africa’s first female wheelchair rugby player 12 years ago. After taking some time off, she's back, playing with the Mustangs of Bloemfontein in the Free State Province and encouraging the next generation of players.
“With the limited resources that we have, we are trying. And I believe that the Lord is going to take us where we need to go, because now whatever we do, especially as a team, we’re not doing it only for ourselves,” Netchane said.
Playing wheelchair rugby is pricey. An imported, specialized high-performance wheelchair alone costs just over 8,000 U.S. dollars.
But former Wheelbok and Mustang player, Jared McIntyre, developed a beginner’s wheelchair that costs about one-fifth the price of imported ones.
“If we have the means to … as I mentioned, as in South Africa, create awareness amongst the sport with cost-effective chairs, we can just as well do it in other countries. And one of these days, you know, have more African countries competing against each other,” Mcintyre said.
South Africa’s wheelchair rugby team hasn't competed internationally since 2015 because it's been simply too expensive.
South Africa Wheelchair Rugby Vice President David Jacobs says despite the cost, they're working to develop the sport across Africa.
“With our affiliation to the South African Rugby Union and the other rugby unions in South Africa, we’re now slowly starting to create further awareness. And once that awareness got a good foundation, we’ll then look at rolling that out into the rest of Africa into the rugby-playing countries of Africa,” Jacobs said.
After plenty of sweat, the Mustangs lifted the trophy for the fourth time running in this year’s South African Wheelchair Rugby League.
Finances permitting, South Africa Wheelchair Rugby hopes to compete internationally again next year.