Matt Wooloff: How an ancestry test took USA international from Wigan Warriors to the Wheelchair World Cup | Rugby League News


Marc Bazeley

@MarcBazeley

Ahead of Saturday’s Betfred Wheelchair Super League Magic Round, Wigan Warriors player Matt Wooloff reveals all on how he overcame leukemia to pursue his rugby ambitions and the surprise family discovery which led to him representing the USA at last year’s Rugby League World Cup

Last Updated: 14/04/23 5:08pm

Matt Wooloff featured for the USA at last year's Wheelchair Rugby League World Cup

Matt Wooloff featured for the USA at last year’s Wheelchair Rugby League World Cup

Like nearly everybody in wheelchair rugby league, Matt Wooloff has a fascinating and unique story to tell. Unbelievably though, the Wigan Warriors player’s tale is perhaps even more incredible than any you have heard before.

There is the inspirational side of it, of how the rugby-obsessed kid had the bones in his ankles destroyed by leukemia as a teenager only to overcome that disease and turn his running game talents to the wheelchair variant, followed by making it to the sport’s highest level.

But another facet of it is how an ancestry test taken by his father led to the discovery of a whole new branch of his family in the United States of America, as well as opening the door for Wooloff to form part of the newly-formed USA wheelchair team which competed at last year’s Rugby League World Cup.

“My dad was adopted when he was a baby and he had a pair of loving adoptive parents who I grew up with as my grandparents,” Wooloff said.

“It was only in the last couple of years his partner almost pushed him into getting an ancestry test. His mother was Irish, and his father turned out to be an American serviceman.

“Now we’ve got this whole network of new family members across in the States, which is lovely, and has given me the heritage to play for the USA.”

The journey the USA team went on from bringing together a squad comprised mainly of players with a wheelchair basketball background at relatively short notice to beating Scotland 62-41 in their opening game was one of the feelgood stories of the tournament.

Matt Wooloff dots down for a try in Wigan's season-opening win against champions Halifax

Matt Wooloff dots down for a try in Wigan’s season-opening win against champions Halifax

Wooloff had barely a week to get to know his team-mates too, linking up with the other 11 members of the American squad when they arrived in England, and recalled how they were pitched straight into some intense and at-times brutal training sessions.

“The World Cup was an incredible experience – I think it’s fair to say one of the best experiences of my life,” Wooloff said. “Having to gel with a new team was really interesting and quite a challenge.

“The training sessions were really good, but it was no-holds-barred. We were all competing for spots because there wasn’t a nailed-on team, so we weren’t doing any injury prevention or trying to take it easy.

“We were just smashing each other in training, and I think that helped us bond as a team because that’s how you bond in rugby.

The training sessions were really good, but it was no-holds-barred…We were just smashing each other in training, and I think that helped us bond as a team because that’s how you bond in rugby.

Matt Wooloff

“You smash each other up for 80 minutes and then you’re best friends afterwards. I think all of those aspects brought us together and helped us for our first game against the Scots.”

Wooloff is in no doubt those World Cup experiences have proven beneficial now he is back in domestic action with Wigan, who began the 2023 Betfred Wheelchair Super League season with an eye-catching 59-45 victory over reigning champions Halifax Panthers last month.

A 50-38 loss to Leeds Rhinos followed, but the Warriors now have an opportunity to put one over on the Panthers again when they face them at the competition’s inaugural Magic Round which will see all six teams in action at the University of Birmingham on Saturday .

Doing the double over Halifax, whose team contains the likes of England World Cup winners Rob Hawkins and Wayne Boardman, would be a big statement for Wigan, and Wooloff believes they are capable of becoming one of the top teams in the competition.

Wigan Warriors player-coach Phil Roberts was pleased with his side following their opening round victory in the Wheelchair Super League over reigning champions Halifax Panthers.

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Wigan Warriors player-coach Phil Roberts was pleased with his side following their opening round victory in the Wheelchair Super League over reigning champions Halifax Panthers.

Wigan Warriors player-coach Phil Roberts was pleased with his side following their opening round victory in the Wheelchair Super League over reigning champions Halifax Panthers.

“Our win against Halifax was absolutely huge,” Wooloff said. “We always thought we had the ability to play that way and over the last couple of seasons we’ve had purple patches in games where I think we’ve been unstoppable and untouchable.

“It was just putting that together for 80 minutes and as time goes on, we’re getting really close to a finished product with Wigan where I think we’ll be unbeatable in Super League.

“We just need to bring all of the moving parts together and then I think we can back that claim up.”

Although now playing for one of the most iconic names in rugby league, Wooloff originally hails from the rugby union hotbed of Bath and part of his day-job sees him working as an analyst for the 15-player code.

12pm: London Roosters vs Leeds Rhinos.

2 pm: Warrington Wolves vs Hull FC.

4pm: Halifax Panthers vs Wigan Warriors.

But his introduction to wheelchair rugby league came at Swindon St George when he decided to try wheelchair sports nine years ago, led by his passion for all things oval ball, and from there he has played for Hereford Harriers and North Wales Crusaders prior to joining Wigan .

Given it has afforded him the opportunity to play at the highest level for both club and country, it is no surprise he is so enthusiastic about the sport and wants it to keep growing after the success of last year’s World Cup on these shores.

“It means everything to me,” Wooloff said. “I was a huge rugby nut when I was a kid and had it taken away from me, but I never lost the passion.

“After finding it again, I’d train every day of the week if there were sessions on that much. I love playing wheelchair rugby league, it was always a dream to play any form of rugby at the top level and achieving that at the World Cup was a dream come true.”

Sky Sports is the home of all three Super League Grand Finals in 2023. The Men’s Grand Final, the Women’s Grand Final and the Wheelchair Grand Final will all be live on Sky Sports this season. Also stream on NOW TV.