King's Birthday Honours 2023: Leeds Rhinos rugby wheelchair star on 'surreal' moment he saw his name
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James Simpson, who has spent years championing wheelchair rugby league, was selected to become a Member of the Order of the British Empire for his services to the sport.
He lost both of his legs after tripping an IED while serving in Afghanistan in 2009. Four years later, he began playing wheelchair rugby league with Leeds Rhinos and has been a mainstay of their emergence as a dominant club, with three consecutive Challenge Cup wins in 2019, 2021 and 2022 - and has been established in the England squad since the 2017 Rugby League World Cup.
The England Wheelchair Rugby League team won the World Cup for the second time in 2021. It was the first World Cup where the Wheelchair tournament was played simultaneously with the Men’s and Women’s tournament, and all players received equal participation fees and prize money.
Simpson, from Guiseley, received the news in a strangely formal-looking letter from the palace last month. He waited to open the envelope with his partner, Josie Hill.
“I wanted to open it together because it looked really official,” he explained. “It was a surreal feeling – I was so chuffed and proud. Then came the month of keeping it a secret, and I hate keeping secrets. That was the tricky bit. I’m really glad that the news is out there now and I can talk about it.”
The award feels like a unique honour for Simpson, who is more used to being celebrated as part of a team, rather than as an individual. He said: “I feel like the MBE will be awarded for the things I have done off the field, like promoting the sport. I already knew how good the game was, but I wanted other people to see that.
"I’m really proud of that work I did. It was a long journey, but I’m a big believer in working hard in the shadows and recognition will eventually come your way. I still never expected it, though.”
He has his fingers crossed for King Charles III, as the member of the royal family to present him with the honour.
“It doesn’t matter who does it, because the award in itself is amazing, but it would be brilliant if it was the King because he won’t have been doing it long – and he is a patron of a lot of military charities, which is great because I am ex-military,” said Simpson.
For now, his focus remains on the task that is taking up most of his time – coaching the Leeds Rhinos Wheelchair Team. Before the World Cup success, the team had less than 10 players, but now boasts over 30.
Simpson said: “The coaching is absolutely fantastic. Seeing Under 16 players smiling and getting more confident is amazing; they are playing with other people who have disabilities, which a lot of them might never have had the chance to do before.”