The wheelchair rugby tournament has come to an end, and one major takeaway is continued improvement outside the top-ranked teams.
That became obvious when Great Britain became the first European team to wheel away with the gold medal, beating perennial powerfouse USA in the final.
Coming into Tokyo, the teams from Japan and the USA were favoured to have their paths cross come Sunday’s gold-medal final, but that wasn’t the case, at least for the host-country.
The two group B teams, USA and Great Britain, played each other for gold and silver after a very close 50-48 round-robin game. The gold medal match was equally close; both teams had solid front-court attacks as both their starting forward duos scored 14+ tries.
Like many other matches in this tournament, the team that gives up possession the least is likely the team that comes out on top. Combining turnovers, fouls and penalties, the Americans accumulated 12 to the British seven, and fittingly so, Great Britain’s +five turnover difference led to their five-point 54-49 win.
The Brits were ranked third coming into this tournament, improving from their No. 6 rank entering Rio in 2016 and London in 2012. They proved that they are constantly improving as a team, topping each Paralympic performance, and now they are at the top of the podium.
On the other hand, the host-country Japan still squeaked out a medal, taking out Australia 60-52 in the bronze medal game, their third straight appearance and second straight with a medal. But the team was expected to be the country’s biggest pride at the Paralympics, so coming up short was a major disappointment for them.
Japan’s Daisuke Ikezaki captured the whole country’s emotions after their disappointing loss in their semi-final game against Great Britain on Saturday.
“We feel sorry because everyone did their best to host the Paralympics during the whole COVID situation, but we couldn’t quite meet those expectations, and that is the thing I really feel sorry about,” Ikezaki said. “We really know about the expectation of Japan on our team and I wanted to delight them. But we couldn’t do it today.”
Japan has been one of those top three teams for a while now, accompanied by the Americans and Australia. However, this year showed that those rankings aren’t exactly set in stone as countries like Great Britain and Denmark continue to improve.
Denmark had an interesting tournament as it came in ranked in the bottom two but only ended up one close game shy of vying for a medal.
Led by Sebastian Frederiksen, who averaged 25.5 tries per game, Denmark upset Australia, beating them 54-53in the opening game. They ended up losing to Japan by nine in their second contest and later lost to France by only two points in their third pool stage game.
A win in that game would have given them a 2-1 record, the advantage over Australia and ultimately the chance at a medal.
Unfortunately for them, after two hard-fought contests and a massive upset, they didn’t have anything to show for it, finishing seventh, but have now fully immersed themselves as a major dark-horse contender come France in 2024.
Canada, on the other hand, came into the tournament with fringe medal hopes. After winning silver at the 2012 Paralympics and finishing fourth in Rio, the expectation for the Canadian squad was a medal finish, or at least a chance at a medal.
After an opening game three-point loss to Great Britain, the Canucks found themselves behind the eight ball early. They had to put up a win against arch-rival USA. In that back-and-forth contest, Canada’s 11 defensive fouls and 12 penalties were just too insurmountable to overcome and they lost 58-54.
After that, it was pretty apparent the team wasn’t going to be able to vie for a medal, making Tokyo an obvious and instant disappointment, something coach Dave Willsie knew following their final game.
“They hate it, it was obvious, we were in the toughest pool, we know we should be vying for a medal,” he said.
Canada, which swept all its qualifying games before Tokyo, had two rookie coaches coming into this tournament and could need a full tournament as an adjustment period. For this squad to fight for a medal in 2024, they need to mesh and get comfortable with each other.