How one cruel blow opened new door to dream for Leeds Rhinos and England wheelchair rugby star Josh Butler

AS a youngster, all Josh Butler wanted to do was play for Leeds Rhinos.

Action from the Wheelchair Challenge Cup Final between victorious Leeds Rhinos and The Argonauts Skeleton Army at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield.  Picture: Dean Atkins
Action from the Wheelchair Challenge Cup Final between victorious Leeds Rhinos and The Argonauts Skeleton Army at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield. Picture: Dean Atkins

The 19-year-old from Kippax, however, had to stop playing rugby league when he was around eight years old as his eyesight had deteriorated to the point where he could not see without glasses.

It was a devastating blow at such a young age, but little did Butler know that his days as a rugby league player had barely even started.

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When he was 10, Spider-Y – the company which runs the Leeds Rhinos Wheelchair side – visited his school.

From there, Butler took up the sport and has not looked back since. He has won the Wheelchair Grand Final and Challenge Cup with the Rhinos and this weekend he is set to play for England as they face Wales in Sheffield.

Butler has already appeared three times for England, when he featured at the 2019 Home Nations against Wales and Scotland.

He was not involved in England’s tour of Australia in late 2019 but after an agonising wait last week, he got the news he had made the squad to face Wales.

“I was really stressed on the day of the call, walking up and down my living room and pacing the house, hoping that time would go by quicker,” he said.

Josh Butler. Picture: Will Palmer/SWpix.com

“I got the call, I answered it and I was really nervous because I had put so much work and effort in. When I was told I had been selected, it was a massive relief. It was like I could finally breathe.

“I feel like I was playing the best rugby of my life at that point so I was really hoping I would get the go-ahead, because then it is a massive boost for your confidence as well.”

He added: “I got the call at 4.30pm in the afternoon, so I had to wait the entire day for it. I would rather have gotten the call out of the way and done early on.”

Butler is able to wear his glasses during games, something he was unable to do while playing the running game.

By the time he had to stop playing rugby league, he could only tell who his teammates were by the colour of the shirts.

“Growing up, I played for Kippax Welfare. I have needed glasses since I was four years old and as the years went on, I could barely see at all,” continued Butler.

“I told my parents after one game that I could barely see the jerseys, I could only tell who my team was because of the green and gold colouring on the shirts. I had to stop playing the running game at that point which was a massive blow because like many young people playing rugby league, you want to play for your local club and go on to bigger things.

“I always wanted to play for Leeds Rhinos, I have also been a fan. My favourite player was Kevin Sinfield, I wanted to be like him.

“It was a massive blow to me when I realised I wouldn’t be able to achieve that dream.

“The company that runs the Leeds Rhinos Wheelchair team came and did a roadshow at my primary school when I was 10 and from there I found out they had a rugby side.

“It just happened that the rugby team was Leeds Rhinos, so that sparked up my love for it again and I have been doing it for nine years now.

“That gave me a new lease of life, it was a new dream that I could pursue.”

Wheelchair Rugby League is played on a 46m x 20m court and is a five-a-side version of the game. Teams must include three physically disabled players and two non-disabled players.

Each game lasts for 80 minutes with teams playing two 40-minute halves.

“It is great how it brings everyone together and that it is really inclusive,” said Butler of the wheelchair game.

“I can play at such a high level against people I would never have the chance to play with.

“When I started, I was only 10, I was playing against people three times my age.

“You get to know people you would never have come across if I wasn’t involved in wheelchair rugby league.

“It shows you a different side to life.

“The thing I love about wheelchair rugby league is that it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from, you can play it. It doesn’t matter if you are able bodied or disabled, your gender or age doesn’t matter – there is no factor to say you can’t play.

“It is just a case of getting a chair and playing the sport.”

With the Rugby League World Cup approaching later this year, Butler is keen to impress in Sheffield today.

“I think that is going to be on the back of everyone’s minds in the England squad,” he added of his World Cup hopes.

“Not only playing well in this game coming up and winning but showing the coaches that we deserve to go to the World Cup later in the year.”