12/11/2015 8:20 PM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST

Wheelchair Aussie Rules Hits The Court In Debut Game Between Diggers And Locals

Handout via Getty Images
DARWIN, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 15: In this handout photo provided by the Australian Defence Force, Australian Army physical training instructor Corporal Todd Hayes tosses the ball into play during a game of wheelchair AFL attended by Prince Harry at the Soldier Recover Centre, Robertson Barracks on April 15, 2015 in Darwin, Australia. Prince Harry has spent his first two weeks secondment in the Australian Army with the North-West Mobile Force (NORFORCE) and the 1st Brigade. (Photo by CPL Oliver Carter/Australian Defence Force via Getty Images)

Wheelchair Australian Rules had its official debut last weekend in a competition match between an Australian Defence Force team and a local South Australian side at the RAAF base in Adelaide.

It’s the brain child of Disability Sports Australia (DSA) and the Australian Defence Force (ADF) which were both looking to engage those wanting to play a wheelchair team sport but seeking an alternative to basketball.

Jenni Cole is the CEO of DSA and said the idea really started to develop properly when both organisations realised they were working on the same project. They then became aware the Soldier Recovery Centre in Darwin had also been working on a version of this sport when some soldiers expressed a preference for AFL over basketball as part of their rehabilitation -- even getting Prince Harry to have a go when he visited the Centre earlier in the year.

While initially pursuing the development of the idea independently, Cole says it became apparent to all concerned that collaboration was the better path.

“It made good sense to join our efforts to try to pull together a uniform set of rules to start a competition and to look at how we could develop the sport -- so that’s kind of how this [exhibition] weekend came about,” she told The Huffington Post.

The hybridised rules see the use of the iconic red Sherrin footy which is thrown up in the centre of a basketball court. Kicks are replaced with handballs, and handballs replaced with underarm throws. Only five players from each team can be on the 'field' at any given time. While the team consists of backs, centres and forwards, only the forwards can score.

Cole had already been working with the Department of Defence in adapting sport for the rehabilitation of wounded and injured soldiers and the collaboration which emerged from this has brought in the very strong element of inclusion through sport catering to the needs of both the Defence Force and the general public.

“One of the unique things about it is because it’s not a Paralympic sport and it’s never really going to be a big international sport, we don’t have to have classifications, so it’s going to be an incredibly inclusive sport. It won’t matter whether you have a disability or not, male or female it doesn’t matter -- anyone can play,” said Cole.

There are a few benefits to the concept of inclusion with Wheelchair AFL, as it is being referred to.

“One is that from a Defence perspective, they can have a whole group of people playing at the Soldier Recovery Centre who might have anything from post-traumatic stress to a back injury to a lower limb injury and they can all play together,” said Cole.

“So it’s completely inclusive. Most disability sports, Paralympic sports, are non-inclusive because you have to meet classification criteria for competition but because we’re not ‘playing for sheep stations’ and it’s not a Paralympic sport, we’re not bound by that.

“So we’re really trying to experiment with this as a fully inclusive sport. So you can get a bloke who ends up as a para, he can get his mates to all jump in a chair and play with him, form a team and play in competition. So it allows people to just really integrate with their friends and families and everybody and we’re really excited about that,” she said.

The concept has taken off so quickly that through Disability Sports Australia state members, there are already competitions forming in Tasmania, Victoria and South Australia with the Defence Department forming between one to three teams, with the eventual goal to develop a national competition.

“The intention is to have a national championship as a partnership with Defence and DSA so we’ve got all those teams together playing in a competition at some point in the first half of next year,” said Cole.

In support of this initiative and the development of the program, the AFL has been consulted and Cole says the organisation is involved in principle and in the future development of the sport.

“I’ve been engaging with the AFL at a national level and the intent we have come to from our initial meetings is that we will develop a partnership for the growth of the sport; so DSA taking the lead with support from the AFL and Defence at this stage,” she said.

“But they (AFL) have been very supportive and they’re looking at assisting around a whole range of things like pathways and linking in with clubs. So they want to take it up as part of the AFL family but it’s still going to be run by us (DSA) but with some partnerships there.”

By all accounts the first official outing for the sport was very successful on the weekend.

It is an adaptive sport and is being used by Defence in the rehabilitation of soldiers enabling them to get involved with sport and enabling their transition out of Defence and back into the community.

Cole says there was a definite “cross-pollination and camaraderie that I think everyone got a lot out of – mixing it up on court and then hanging out later.”

For further information on the program, contact:

Jenni Cole (CEO Disability Sports Australia)

+61 419 274 198