It has been six years since Leeds Rhinos Wheelchair Rugby League club were formed, and six weeks since they were crowned Grand Final winners for the first time.
Their England international Jodie Boyd-Ward has just about come back down to earth since their dramatic win over heavy favourites Halifax, and she has already turned her attentions to next year’s title defence.
It has been quite a journey for the 26-year-old, who plainly admits she ‘despised’ the sport when she first took it up.
But, juggling training and matches with work and a law degree, wheelchair rugby won her round and she eventually fell in love, thanks in no small part to one very supportive grandad.
“My grandad is a big rugby fan,” she said. “And I always sat and watched rugby with him but actually, I kind of fell into the sport.
“I started playing wheelchair basketball because I wasn’t able to do able-bodied sports and at the time my team back in Wolverhampton had decided to give wheelchair rugby league a go. I tried it and honestly I can say, I hated it!
I don’t know many sports where you can play at league level and at international level in a mixed group and that is something unique and amazing about wheelchair rugby league.Jodie Boyd-Ward
“I kept trying to give it a go and see how I felt and it was only when Andy Gardner, the chairman of Spider-Y, contacted me and said “how would you feel about playing in the Home Nations?” – I went into that and tried to be a bit more open-minded about how the game worked because for me, I wanted to play a sport that’s as close to the able-bodied version and when I first tried it I was very closed-minded about it.
“As I got older I realised it’s the closest you’ll get to the running game in a wheelchair.
“So I played in the Home Nations and that kicked it all off for me.
“We actually moved to Yorkshire so I could play wheelchair rugby league because there wasn’t really anything in the West Midlands, it was either down south or up north.”
With the club only being put together in 2012, Boyd-Ward recalls some fairly hapless performances when she first moved from her native Wolverhampton.
But in time, coach Martyn Gill and his staff helped to turn the club around, to the point where Boyd-Ward is now one of six Rhinos players spending the winter training with the England Performance Unit.
Boyd-Ward was the only female member of the England squad at last year’s World Cup, where they were narrowly beaten by France in the final. It was an experience that she clearly took a lot from, and she now has a little piece of history to help commemorate her international exploits.
“A couple of weeks ago we received our first international caps,” said Boyd-Ward, “which is history in the making because both the women’s team and the wheelchair team were awarded those for the first time ever.
“Mine is currently in the process of getting framed to send out to my grandad.
“As much as I’d like to keep it, I think he deserves it for pushing me at times that it got tough and I had moments where I didn’t want to carry on.
“Both him and my nan were great influences saying, ‘no, you need to keep going, you can and you will’.
“It’s just to remind him that I may not be in Wolverhampton but I’m still doing what I’m told. I was tempted to wear it into work but I thought I might get a few strange looks!”
The determination she drew from her grandparents was fully rewarded at the end of September, as the Rhinos put the disappointment of consecutive Grand Final defeats to bed with their first title.
Opponents Halifax were huge favourites and were something of a bogey team for Leeds, having beaten them in the previous two years’ showpiece events.
Looking back, though, Boyd-Ward’s overriding feeling is one of immense joy and pride, rather than the satisfaction of revenge.
“I had the ball in my hands for the last few seconds of that game – and I just passed it back to our captain because I thought if anyone deserves to have this ball, it’s James [Simpson],” she said.
“This year everything just felt right. Going down, everyone was pretty calm. There was a little bit of tension, you could tell, but we’d had a really good season and thought, ‘right, let’s get this done’.
“Every single little thing within the team, we always talk about those little one-percenters, things that can make you better, and even things down to getting to the venue.”
And Boyd-Ward – who has been nominated in the sportswoman disability category alongside Hannah Cockroft for the 2019 Leeds Sports Awards – says the Rhinos are now relishing the challenge of defending their crown next season.
If they could do so with some more women in the squad, that would certainly be a bonus; the sport is still heavily male-dominated, and Boyd-Ward wants that to change.
“I’ve made it my mission to get more females into the sport,” she added.
“My team-mates always joke that it doesn’t matter who it is, whether they’re male or female, I will go out and hit them and tackle them just as hard as I would for anybody else. I remember why I first started, that was one of the reasons why I absolutely detested the sport because I didn’t realise I would have guys that are twice my size barrelling full-speed at me and knocking me out of my chair.
“But I’ve got quite a few brothers, so to me it’s just the same really.”
“We had a wheelchair sports camp in the summer and there were a couple of females there who came to try out the sport, so hopefully they liked it and they’re going to come back. I don’t tend to notice it until somebody points it out – quite often somebody will say ‘you were the only female there’ and I’ll answer, “oh, was I? Because it’s an inclusive sport it doesn’t matter whether you are male or female, disabled or able-bodied, it’s there so that people can take part in it.
“Don’t get me wrong, I would love it if we could get a female team together.
“But one of the things that I love about my sport is that there’s no segregation.
“In other sports you have a male team and a female team whereas in this it’s mixed which is something I appreciate every time I go to training, every time I play in a game, every time I play in an England camp.
“I don’t know many sports where you can play at league level and at international level in a mixed group and that is something unique and amazing about wheelchair rugby league.”