Josh Butler: How wheelchair rugby league gave Yorkshire teenager and Leeds Rhinos trophy winner a clear vision for the future
AS A youngster, all Josh Butler wanted to do was play for Leeds Rhinos.
The 19-year-old from Kippax had to stop playing rugby league when he was around eight years of age as his eyesight had deteriorated to the point where he could not see without glasses.
It was a devastating blow at such a young age, but little did Butler know that his days as a rugby league player had barely even started.
When he was 10, Spider-Y – the company which runs the Leeds Rhinos Wheelchair side – visited his school.
From there, Butler took up the sport and has not stopped since. He has won the Wheelchair Grand Final and Challenge Cup with the Rhinos and this weekend is set to play for England as they face Wales at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield.
Butler has already appeared three times for England, when he featured at the 2019 Home Nations against Wales and Scotland.
He was not involved in England’s tour of Australia in late 2019 but after an agonising wait last week, got the news he had made the squad to face Wales.
“I was really stressed on the day of the call, walking up and down my living room and pacing the house, hoping that time would go by quicker,” he said. “I got the call, I answered it and I was really nervous because I had put so much work and effort in. When I was told I had been selected, it was a massive relief. It was like I could finally breathe.
“I feel like I was playing the best rugby of my life at that point so I was really hoping I would get the go ahead, because it is a massive boost for your confidence as well.”
He added: “I got the call at 4.30pm, so I had to wait the entire day for it. I would rather have gotten the call out of the way and done early on.”
Butler is able to wear his glasses during games, something he was unable to do while playing the running game.
By the time he had to stop playing rugby league, he could only tell who his team-mates were by the colour of their shirts.
“Growing up, I played for Kippax Welfare. I have needed glasses since I was four-years-old and as the years went on, I could barely see at all,” continued Butler.
“I told my parents after one game that I could barely see the jerseys, I could only tell who my team was because of the green and gold colouring on the shirts. I had to stop playing the running game at that point which was a massive blow because like many young people playing rugby league, you want to play for your local club and go onto bigger things.
“I always wanted to play for Leeds Rhinos, I have also been a fan. My favourite player was Kevin Sinfield, I wanted to be like him.
“It was a massive blow to me because I realised I wouldn’t be able to achieve that dream.
“The company that runs the Leeds Rhinos Wheelchair team came and did a roadshow at my primary school when I was 10 and from there I found out they had a rugby side.
“It just happened that the rugby team was Leeds Rhinos, so that sparked up my love for it again and I have been doing it for nine years now.
“I have won the Challenge Cup and the Grand Final with Leeds Rhinos and then I made my England debut which I never thought I could do, especially after I stopped playing the running game.
“That gave me a new lease of life, it was a new dream that I could pursue.
“I have to wear glasses all the time, the majority of the people in my family do so it is nothing new to us.”
Wheelchair Rugby League is played on a 46m x 20m court and is a five-a-side version of rugby league. Teams must include three physically disabled players and two non-disabled players.
Each game lasts for 80 minutes with teams playing two 40-minute halves.
“It is great how it brings everyone together and that it is really inclusive,” said Butler.
“I can play at such a high level against people I would never have the chance to play with.
“When I started I was only 10, I was playing against people three times my age.
“You get to know people you would never have come across if I wasn’t involved in wheelchair rugby league.
“It shows you a different side to life.
“The thing I love about wheelchair rugby league is that it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from, you can play it.
“It doesn’t matter if you are able bodied or disabled, your gender or age doesn’t matter – there is no factor to say you can’t play.
“It is just a case of getting a chair and playing the sport.”
Today’s outing in Sheffield – 12.30pm and broadcast on the BBC’s red button service –will be bittersweet for Butler, who will turn out for England without his grandfather, who passed away in December, in the crowd.
“This is my first chance getting out there internationally after everything that went on last year with Covid. My Grandad passed away in late December last year, so when I go out to play for England – I will be doing it for him,” he said. “He was my biggest fan, he was always at every single game.
“It will be a weird feeling playing there without him being in the stands.
“I am just hoping I can perform on the day and make him proud.
“He pushed me to be the best I can be and I want to be at the World Cup and make him proud.”
Tomorrow’s international kicks off a big week for Butler, who will take part in the Wheelchair Challenge Cup final on July 3 between Leeds and the Kent-based Argonauts .
The Rhinos are the current holders after winning the trophy in 2019. In the same year, Leeds lost the Wheelchair Grand Final to Halifax, after going the entire season unbeaten.
They had won the Grand Final for the first time in 2018 and Butler added: “Having that Grand Final Trophy taken away from us was a tougher loss than losing before you had won it.
“It hurts a lot more to have a trophy taken away from you than to never win one at all.
“We don’t want to repeat that with the Challenge Cup this year, we want to stay champions and prove to everyone we deserve to be champions.”
The Wheelchair Rugby League Challenge Cup final will be shown live on the BBC next weekend.