Great Britain’s first-ever medal in wheelchair rugby at the Paralympics was a gold one after they learned the lessons of their pool defeat to the USA to beat the Americans in Sunday’s final at the Yoyogi National Stadium in Tokyo.
While not as dramatic as Australia’s overtime victory against the USA at Rio 2016, the match was still full of thrills and spills and remained on a knife-edge throughout as the USA refused to let Great Britain get away from them.
Great Britain always held the edge on the scoreboard but it was only in the last couple of minutes that they were assured of an historic victory.
For three-time former champions the USA, it was another silver medal to add to the one they won in Rio.
Great Britain had produced an equally impressive display in defeating a much-fancied Japan team in the semi-finals, while the USA had seen off Australia 49-42 in the other last-four tie, denying the 2012 and 2016 champions the chance to go for a third consecutive gold medal in the process.
The Steelers, as Australia’s team are known, failed to make the podium as hosts Japan defeated them 60-52 in the bronze medal decider.
Great Britain take historic gold
On Friday, the USA overturned a five-try deficit against Great Britain to win a stunning match 50-48. But, this time, Great Britain held their composure and displayed superb time and game management throughout, save for a nervy spell midway through the second half.
A strong defensive press prevented their opponents from gathering the momentum they needed and Great Britain led 15-12 at the end of the first quarter.
American talisman and captain Chuck Aoki and arch try poacher Josh Wheeler remained a constant threat, however, and Aoki reduced the deficit to just two tries on the stroke half-time.
Some Great Britain supporters may have feared history was about to repeat itself when the USA clawed another try back to trail by only one at 37-36 down at the end of the third quarter.
But with RAF veteran Stuart Robinson and captain Jim Roberts making a big impact, Great Britain were able to stay in control of the scoreboard and they eventually pulled clear to win by a five-try margin as the Americans forced passes in a desperate attempt to stay in the hunt.
“What an amazing shift that was,” said Roberts.
“I am so happy for the guys, that was one to remember.”
Roberts top-scored with 24 tries but it was a real team effort as Great Britain overcame past disappointments.
Great Britain had failed to win a medal on their five previous Paralympic Games appearances, losing the bronze play-off in both 2004 and 2008 and were up against the sport’s most-decorated team.
“I play to win every game I go into, so that’s what I wanted to come for. We knew there would be some amazing teams here,” added Roberts.
“USA are a class act, and it was just amazing to meet them in the final.”
Bronze medal some consolation for Japan
Earlier on, reigning world champions Japan matched their bronze medal finish of four years ago in Rio after defeating reigning champions Australia 60-52 in the bronze medal decider.
Daisuke Ikezaki led the way with 23 tries in what he described as a bitter-sweet result for the hosts.
"I think this is the best result the team can attain right now, but personally, it is an unsatisfactory and mortifying result," said Ikezaki.
Japan had backed up their status as one of the pre-tournament favourites as they marched imperiously through the pool stages with wins over France, Denmark, and Australia. But a heart-breaking 55-49 semi-final defeat to Great Britain ended their gold medal hopes.
Australia had come into the Games looking to secure an unprecedented hat-trick of gold medals but despite the best efforts of superstar player and captain, Ryley Batt, who contributed a game-high 27 goals, they were well beaten.
Batt says the fact that the Steelers had been unable to train together for 18 months because of COVID-19 restrictions had hindered their ability to build on wins in London and Rio.
“We knew we were up for some challenges because we haven’t been together as a team for so long and it’s really hurt our preparation,” Batt said.
“I know everyone’s been affected, I’m not sure how affected, but we’ve been really affected back home in Australia.
“But look, we’ve had a really good run, we won two gold medals and we won a silver … and you can’t be at the top forever.”
#NZL 💥 #USA— Paralympic Games (@Paralympics) August 25, 2021
Team USA take victory over the Wheel Blacks in the opening #WheelchairRugby clash of The Games!
It ends 63-35 at the Yoyogi National Stadium#Tokyo2020 #Paralympics pic.twitter.com/SPe6jCMzWb
Canada claim fifth
A third-place finish in Pool B meant Canada were guaranteed to finish outside of the top four for the first time since wheelchair rugby was introduced to the Paralympics as a demonstration sport in 1996.
Narrow losses to eventual finalists, Great Britain and USA, were followed by an emphatic 51-36 victory against New Zealand as Canada set up a fifth place decider against France.
France’s only victory in the pool stage had come against newcomers Denmark although, on another day, they could have been competing for a place on the podium as their previous matches against Japan and Australia were only settled by a two-try margin.
France’s inability to look after possession cost them dearly in the play-off match and Canada ruthlessly punished their high turnover count to win 57-49.
Debutants sign off in style
Denmark completed their debut campaign as they started it – with victory against opponents from Oceania.
Having shocked Australia on day one, the Danes beat New Zealand’s Wheel Blacks 56-53 in a close-fought seventh place play-off, where there was never more than four or five tries between the teams who finished last in their respective pools.
New Zealand’s return to the Paralympics for the first time since 2008 ended in defeat despite a remarkable 37-try contribution from star man, Barney Koneferenisi, who vowed his team would be all the better for the experience.
“This is a stepping stone for the Wheel Blacks, this is where everything starts," Koneferenisi said.
“Now we know where we can improve. We gave these teams a run for their money and we are happy with how this campaign went and we're ready for Paris.”
Photo: Megumi Masuda/World Wheelchair Rugby