The USA and France earned the last two remaining wheelchair rugby spots for the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games after finishing as the top two teams from the International Wheelchair Rugby Federation (IWRF) 2016 Paralympic Qualification Tournament in Paris, France.
It was an all-Team USA dominated tournament, as they went undefeated throughout the week, closing with a victory over France in the finals on Thursday (21 April).
With the conclusion of the tournament, eight teams competing in the wheelchair rugby competition in September’s Games are: USA, France, Australia, Canada, Japan, Great Britain, Sweden and Brazil.
But the USA’s and France’s success came with heartbreakers for Denmark and New Zealand.
GOLD MEDAL MATCH: USA 54-45 France
Both sides booked their plane tickets to Rio following crucial semi-final victories earlier on Thursday, and the final was just a formality to end what has been an amazing festival of rugby.
France, buoyed in front of a lively home crowd, started the game with great emphasis and caused the USA problems, something teams have struggled to do throughout the week.
The USA made a couple of early mistakes to allow France to grab hold of the game. The USA’s Lee Fredette (1.0) lost possession when being forced back into the defensive half, and France’s Christophe Salegui rolled over to create a two-point lead.
Eric Newby (2.0) pulled USA back within one point, but Chad Cohn’s (1.0) stint in the penalty box kept France one point ahead at the end of the first quarter.
The USA picked up their game in the second period and forced France to use up two of their time outs just two minutes into the quarter. France went two points up after an uncharacteristic loose pass from US star Chuck Aoki.
But Aoki (3.0) made up for his mistake as the high-pointer was the man to roll over the line to give the Eagles a one point lead at the half.
The Eagles were on top from then on and a line change gave them a defensive boost as they blocked any French attempt, running the shot clock down to assert their dominance.
BRONZE MEDAL MATCH: Denmark 51-46 New Zealand
Both New Zealand and Denmark had to recover quickly and play for bragging rights in the bronze medal match after losing in their semi-finals earlier on Thursday to France and the USA, respectively, meaning they had no shot toward Rio qualification.
New Zealand, who had played the same four for the majority of the semi-final clash with France, gave a rest to some of their players and gave some of the other players a chance to go on court.
Denmark carved out a three-point lead in the opening quarter as both teams looked tired from a packed week.
Denmark managed to keep their advantage on court having possibly been the better of the two sides across the week on a whole and they stretched the lead to four points at the halfway stage.
Cameron Leslie, who had put in a mammoth shift in the semi-final was trying to inspire a Kiwi comeback, but it was not to be.
SEMI-FINAL 1: USA 56-44 Denmark
Earlier on Thursday, USA sailed into the final with a win over Denmark.
It was a repeat of the day two opening fixture with USA narrowly edging past their opponents by five points.
Ranked No. 2 in the world, the USA were pre-tournament favourites for qualification and they really showed why they are one of the world’s best with their sixth win of the week.
Denmark were well up for the challenge in the opening exchanges, but USA showed their dominance to force early timeouts by Denmark. There were little mistakes from both teams keeping the game fairly level in the opening eight-minute spell. Josh Wheeler briefly lost concentration from the inbound to give Denmark possession, which was unusual for a team that is usually so well composed.
Eric Newby rolled over the line in the final 10 seconds of the quarter to give USA a small two-point cushion heading into the first interval.
USA were pumped up for the game. With the stakes high, their bench was in full voice cheering on their team mates on court, creating a great atmosphere in an intense fixture. Denmark lost their way a little bit in the second period, at one stage having two players in the penalty box, allowing USA to stretch the lead further.
It was a very even third quarter, as the USA managed to add a further point gap in the resulting eight minutes of play but an eight-point gap almost surely secured their plane ticket to Rio.
SEMI-FINAL 2: France 51-48 New Zealand
France booked their ticket for Rio and set up a final with USA after a narrow victory to New Zealand.
It was heartbreak for the Wheel Blacks who managed to beat France in the pool stage on day two, a result that ultimately earned them the automatic semi-final spot.
Wheel Black captain Sholto Taylor said: “We are obviously disappointed with that. A lot of effort went in to the games this week and it’s a real shame that we have not got what we set out to get.”
New Zealand’s customary start to proceedings, the Haka, had a different feel to the showings in previous games, as there was more of an atmosphere and the French team were right in the faces of their enemy on court, a real showing to what was at stake in this grudge match.
The game was fierce from the off with big challenges flying in. Kiwi Dan Buckingham took a few big tumbles after collisions with Christophe Salegui.
The teams entered the first break all even on 11-11 but France came out all guns blazing after the restart and quickly went two points ahead. A two point lead has been good enough to go on and win games this week but New Zealand fought back and pulled the scores level again.
The Wheel Blacks then went one point ahead but France forced the mistake needed and Chris Lay’s (1.5) misguided pass from the by line to Cameron Leslie (3.0) gave France the opportunity to claw the score back.
Ryadh Sallem scored with seven seconds remaining to give France a one-point advantage at half time.
France managed to put a bit of breathing space between themselves and New Zealand with a three-point gap, and the Kiwis changed their line as Taylor, Cody Everson and Tanafi Lafono entered the court.
The fresh trio defended well but France kept on the pressure and Cedric Nankin rolled over with one second on the shot clock to put the home nation four points clear.
France managed to hold their lead in the final eight minutes as New Zealand battled in vein to force a turnover, but France held strong and secured their final spot, and more importantly their spot in Rio.
ALL TOURNAMENT TEAM
0.5 Adrien Chalmin - France
1.0 Chad Cohn - USA
1.5 Thomas Schuwje - Germany
2.0 Andrej Leonhard - Germany
2.5 Josh Wheeler - USA
3.0 Jonathan Hivernat - France
3.5 Ryadh Sallem - France
MVP Cameron Leslie - New Zealand
Complete results from the wheelchair rugby 2016 Paralympic Qualifiers can be found on the IWRF website.