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Wheelchair rugby is the next sport to start qualification for Rio 2016, with the winner of the world championship that starts on Monday (4 August) guaranteed a place at the first Paralympic Games in South America. Twelve teams will compete at the sixth edition of the IWRF World Championship, which will be held in Odense, Denmark.
The USA, which has won four of the five previous world championships and claimed Paralympic gold at the Sydney 2000 and Beijing 2008 Games, again arrives as one of the favourites. The North Americans are in Group B with Japan, Sweden, Germany, France and New Zealand.
USA captain, Joe Delagrave, has high hopes of winning gold and booking his place in Rio. “We expect to fight for the gold medal. We have a great team and want to maintain last season’s high performance level. We want to guarantee a place at Rio 2016 as soon as possible so that we can work to develop the team without having to worry about qualifying at the Parapan American Games in 2015.”
However, Delagrave knows that his team will have to fight every inch of the way to be successful in Denmark, such is the quality of the opposition. “Australia is the current Paralympic champion, with Ryley Batt and Chris Bond, two of the best players in the world,” he said.
“The experienced Canada team is always a strong candidate, and will have rising star Zak Madell. Japan and Great Britain are teams that combine both young and experienced players, and are sure to be strong competitors for the place at Rio.”
The Australians, who claimed gold at London 2012 after taking silver at Beijing 2008, are in Group A with Canada, Great Britain, Denmark, Finland and Belgium.
“We have a very strong team and this is probably the best chance we have ever had to win the world championship,” said coach Brad Dubberley. “We’ve got plenty of experience in high-pressure games and even the youngest players have already shown how well they are fitting into the team. These players gained a lot of confidence after we won the Canada Cup, where they played a key role and performed really well.”
Hosts Denmark acknowledge that they are not on the same level as the USA and Australia, but coach Thor Johansson said the gap is closing. “We have improved a lot over the past few years and we are more professional and better focused than we used to be,” he said.
“Even though the United States and Australia are the big favourites, other teams are still developing and I think Denmark is one of the teams that are closing in on them in terms of performance. With the fans cheering us on, we will be stronger than ever. It will be a major sporting experience for our players and we are really anxious to achieve success and finish in the top five.”
The top two teams in each group will go through to the semi-finals, with the final being played in the Arena Fyn on 10 August. The games are being shown live on the event's official website.
The world championship is the first Rio 2016 qualifying tournament for wheelchair rugby. In 2015, the Parapan American Games and European, Asian and Oceania championships will also offer one qualification place each. Two more places will be up for grabs at the world qualifiers in 2016, and the eighth place will go to hosts Brazil.