It’s more than a game

It’s 10:45am on Wednesday, October 6 and on the basketball court of HBF Stadium in Mount Claremont, 16 able-bodied and people with disability alike sit in sporting wheelchairs, about to showcase the sport of wheelchair AFL for the first time. Several members of the West Coast Eagles, Sports Minister Tony Buti and many of Perth’s media outlets are present. As Hayden Marchetto, the day’s umpire and the man tasked with making the event happen, blows his whistle and throws the ball up, he breathes a small sigh of relief, knowing his hard work has given people of all abilities the chance to play the game they love.

The WA Wheelchair Football League is a new opportunity for people who have never been able to participate in Australia’s game to have the chance to pass around the Sherrin in a competitive environment. The sport of wheelchair AFL includes able-bodied players as well, which separates it from other codes, such as wheelchair rugby and tennis. For the foundation players and the clubs they are aligned to, bringing all types of people together is what will not only help grow the game, but grow the community as a whole. This is the story of their success.

Wheelchair AFL brings together all kinds of people. Video: Matthew Paddick.

An idea comes to fruition

In 2011, the Perth Football League (then the WA Amateur Football League) was tasked with the creation of the integrated competition. The league’s inception allowed people with disability to get involved in the game they love. From there, the WA All Abilities Football Association was formed to help raise money to grow the game across WA. The association has grown through different initiatives throughout the years. Blind AFL is one of them, where sounds are used to allow those with vision impairment to take part. Starkick is another, a program designed to include children of all abilities into the game. Walking Football brings in those over 55 a different way to play the game, where running is not permitted. Having taken inspiration from the wheelchair league in Victoria, bringing a league to WA was the next move to grow the game.

To get the competition underway, the PFL partnered with the Western Australian Institute of Sport to create a vision for the league. From there, the concept was pitched to the football clubs in the WAFL. East Perth, Subiaco, and Swan Districts were the three clubs chosen to form the league’s teams for the first season. Four come-and-try sessions were put on to generate interest, and an eight-round, 21-game season including finals was created.

A game for all

Under the WAWFL rules for this season, teams are allowed two able-bodied players in their squad, but only one of them can be on court at any given time during the game. East Perth Football Club commercial marketing manager James Sansalone was given the task of getting a wheelchair team together for the Royals. He believes able-bodied people may be under the impression they can’t participate in the sport. 

“There is unfortunately a stigma around people in wheelchairs and wheelchair sport in general,” he says. “The very first thing that we learned when we got there at the first come and try day is that the wheelchair is not an obstacle. It’s just a piece of equipment like a cricket bat or a tennis racket.”

Rebound WA is a group dedicated to helping people with disability live fuller and more connected lives by removing barriers so they may participate in activities like their able-bodied peers. The organisation’s programs coordinator Hayden Lewis says able-bodied participants are fundamental for the league.

“There’s only so many people with physical disabilities around so to get a volume of numbers to fill out teams you’ll need able-bodied players involved,” he says. “Engagement from the various clubs around Perth to help filter some of those ex-players with bad knees or friends and families and will help a lot.”

The man behind the league getting together has a vision for bringing people together. Hayden Marchetto is the integrated football coordinator at the Perth Football League. He’s a selfless person who prefers to stand in the background and give others the spotlight, often quick to credit the players and the people around him for the excitement the association has generated. He says having the mix between players with disability and those who are able-bodied gives players a chance they wouldn’t have elsewhere.

Hayden Marchetto knows what opportunities like the WAWFL means for different groups of people. Photo: Matthew Paddick.

“With a diverse group you build the capacity between able-bodied and physically disabled players,” he says. “You might have a father with a physical disability who gets to play with his son who doesn’t have a disability. That wouldn’t happen on a (traditional) football field.”

Swan Districts WAWFL player Toby Anscombe is a passionate football fan, having played integrated football with amateur club North Beach. He’s a spirited person who is always joking and making people laugh. He agrees the sport has a role in connecting people.

“That’s really important to have a great mix because I’ve got friends who are able-bodied as well,” he says. “I’d love to see them playing down here as well.”

Toby Anscombe holds up the AFL Premiership Cup. Photo: Supplied.

Angus Schumacher plays for East Perth in the traditional game and has helped the football club get a WAWFL team together. As an able-bodied player, he says his role is to make the sport enjoyable.

“I just try to get everyone involved as much as possible,” he says. “It’s not necessarily about winning or losing, as much as they love to win. Just getting everyone involved and everyone touching the footy feeling good about themselves just having a good time.”

Representation is key

While the inclusivity between able-bodied and people with disability has been praised, questions have been raised about female participation in the sport. Only two of the players who participated in the launch game were women.

Kathleen O’Kelly-Kennedy is a Paralympian who represented Australia in wheelchair basketball in 2008 in Beijing. She’s passionate about getting more people with disability, and in particular women, involved in sport. She says sport can help change the way a person thinks.

Kathleen O’Kelly-Kennedy aims to empower people with disability. Photo: Matthew Paddick.

“Sport changed my life and the way I look at my disability, and also, my confidence as a woman,” she says. “I really want that to be available to any girl that wants to take it up.”

The league has attempted to make the entry barrier easier for women, with its disability clarification system offering concession points for female players, as well as players under the age of 18. However, O’Kelly-Kennedy says the ability to show female athletes playing the sport will be crucial in growing the league to get more women into the game.

“Starting off at the schools, and when we do come and try days, making sure that the people that are presenting are women as well,” she says. “Representation is really key, as is providing a platform for women that are already involved in disability sports. Young girls with disabilities are seeing that and then looking for it because they know it’s there for them.”

“There is unfortunately a stigma around people in wheelchairs and wheelchair sport in general.”

– James Sansalone

From the clubs

All the teams involved in the league appear to have a common mindset: the desire for each football club to become something more in the community. Matt Hewitson is the people and community general manager at Swan Districts. He says the club’s decision to join the league was an easy one.

“The move into building our presence in the people with disability spaces has largely been growing over the last four or five years,” he says. “When we were approached by the WA All Abilities Football Association to be involved, we naturally jumped at the chance.

“It’s an opportunity that we saw that would enable people who love Swans and have always barracked for Swans but physically have never been able to play football before to play.”

Sansalone also spoke proudly of the guernsey, saying his football club wants to offer the chance for everyone to don the royal blue and black. The Swans and Royals are two proud, but recently unsuccessful clubs in terms of a league premierships, with the former last winning the flag in 2010, and the latter last winning in 2002. However, for Subiaco, it’s a different story.

The League side boasts on field success, competing in seven out of the last eight grand finals, and winning five of those. In 2018, the football club as a whole completed a sweep of the competition, winning the Colts, Reserves, and League premierships all in the same year. Subiaco chief executive Peter Capes says it’s made it easier for the club to get involved in other footballing endeavours.

“We, like other WAFL clubs, are looking to move from the traditional WAFL format of playing league footy, to be a relevant part of your community,” he says. “We’ve set up these visions three or four or probably longer years ago. It’s about being more active with the people in the community.”

  • Various wheelchair players and officials pose for a photo

The definition of success

When asked about what success for this league means, everyone involved seemed to agree: it’s a great spectacle and it gets different types of people involved in Australian rules football. However, success for the individual parties involved can be different to those for the clubs involved.

For Anscombe, he says he couldn’t believe the amount of coverage there was at the competition’s launch. It shows how much of an interest the public is taking in the new edition of the sport. Meanwhile, Marchetto says those involved have loved the experience, and they continue to come back with big smiles on their faces. The pair is hopeful the future will see all nine WAFL clubs join the competition and bring in more people into the game, with Anscombe saying he’d love to see a national competition come to fruition.

“Representation is really key, as is providing a platform for women that are already involved in disability sports.”

– Kathleen O’Kelly-Kennedy

For the clubs involved, while they all saw the league coming together as a success in its own right, there’s still a competitive aspect with a premiership to be won.

“It’s a real competition with real games,” Capes says. “So whoever wins and loses, there’s some value in all that for them.”

Sansalone agrees, saying the competitive nature of the competition will help see growth in the coming years.

“The competitive spirit that we all have is we want to win and we definitely want to win the first one,” he says. “Hopefully we’ll look back in 10 years and see how much it’s grown.”

The league is already underway, and will run until November 28, when the grand final will take place. For most of the players, it will be the first time they get a chance at AFL premiership glory.