Wheelchair rugby league’s James Simpson: ‘I want them to be inspired’

To many of those who know him best, James Simpson is an inspiration. A superhero, even. But in his own words: “I’m simply James Simpson the rugby player.” It is a remarkable show of humility from a man who will be one of the stars of Sunday’s Wheelchair Challenge Cup final.

While serving with the 1st Battalion Yorkshire Regiment in Afghanistan 12 years ago, Simpson lost his legs in an IED explosion. It ended his career in the army but it did not deter his spirit, drive and determination. If anything, it strengthened his purpose to make the most of life.

“It’s life-altering, but it’s not life-ending whatsoever,” he says. “I’ve never let that moment define me. I didn’t want to be known for having injuries. I’m not James Simpson, the guy who lost his legs when a bomb exploded. I’ve made sure I’ve created my own pathway.”

Nine years ago, Simpson – a boyhood Leeds Rhinos supporter – discovered wheelchair rugby league, a sport in its infancy. “It was just for fun initially,” he says. “I was in my 20s, I didn’t know anyone in my life who was disabled other than fellow soldiers. Suddenly, I’m surrounded with guys who’ve been disabled their whole lives. Fast-forward nine years and the game has evolved into something unbelievably competitive. I’m almost a professional athlete these days. I eat, sleep and live the game, and it’s given me a huge purpose in life.”

Simpson is adamant it is the people he plays with on a weekly basis who are inspirational, not him. Take Nathan Collins, the Leeds and England player who was born with dwarfism but has become one of the stars of the wheelchair game. There are countless other examples, too.

“In our game, we don’t really notice it because we’ve all had a journey,” Simpson says. “We’ve got guys who’ve suffered life-altering injuries, and some who’ve been disabled from birth. I love that everyone has a story.”

Those stories will be on full display on Sunday on the BBC website and iPlayer, when Leeds aim to retain the Challenge Cup they won in 2019 when they face the Argonauts of Kent in the final at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield.

Last year’s domestic campaign was wiped out by Covid-19 and the wheelchair World Cup, like the 13-a-side men’s and women’s tournaments, has been pushed back to 2022. It is typical of Simpson, though, that he remains pragmatic and positive about the future of the sport despite the setbacks.

“Don’t get me wrong, I was fuming when they called it off,” he says with a laugh. “But I got over it, because I knew we had this cup final to prepare for. We’ve been playing two games a day in the Super League and this weekend is such a monumental moment.

“I just want everyone to see how good this game is, and this is the opportunity. A few years ago, the games were being streamed on Facebook by someone stood at the side of the pitch with a phone. Now, we’re on the BBC. It’s incredible.”

It is the first wheelchair club game to be given this platform but interest is mounting. A clip of an incredible try scored by the former England international Harry Brown recently went viral, being shared by Adam Hills and Johnny Vegas, among others.

“I watch games back from when I made my debut and I really wasn’t that good,” he says with a smile. “The standard now is incredible and the game has evolved. When we first started out it was mainly wheelchair basketball players playing rugby … you didn’t see a lot of rugby-isms. Now we’re all rugby players with rugby backgrounds.

“I’m 35 now and I have to work so hard to keep up with the demands at the top level. You’ve got to because all the leading players are in their early 20s. These are the stars of the future and these are the guys who will take wheelchair rugby to the next level.”

The World Cup is a pivotal moment for rugby league in the UK, not least for the wheelchair game. It has made considerable steps forward in recent years, and the cup final being shown by the BBC is another huge leap of progression. But this is far from the end of the journey for Simpson. “I want the next big international star to not even be playing the sport yet,” he says. “I want them to tune in on Sunday and be inspired. To see that anything is possible, and you can play sport no matter what.

“The World Cup isn’t the end. I want to grow the game even bigger. It should be the launchpad for the game. To those who haven’t seen the sport before, all I’d say is tune in. You’ll be amazed.”

For someone who has been through so much, that is high praise indeed from Simpson. Perhaps you would be wise to heed his words and give wheelchair rugby league a go on Sunday. You won’t regret it.