By Emily Goddard

WR IrelandFebruary 7 - Some of the world's biggest wheelchair rugby stars are gearing up to for the International Wheelchair Rugby Federation's (IWRF) European Qualifier, which got underway at Gormanston College just outside of Dublin today.

National teams from the Czech Republic, Italy, Netherlands and host country Ireland will all attend this IWRF sanctioned event in the hope of earning one of the two available spots left at the European Championship in Antwerp this August.

Organised by the Irish Wheelchair Association of Sport, the host nation, who have been playing the sport since 1997 and have roughly 35 players - both male and female - participating on either a competitive or recreational level, are particularly excited to be hosting the tournament.

"We expect all of the games to be closely fought and hope to earn one of the qualifying places," explained Nicky Hamill, director of the Irish Wheelchair Association of Sport.

"In the past the Dutch team has been our biggest challenge.

"However, over the past few years there has been very little between ourselves and the Czech Republic - always very competitive games.

"Italy is relatively new to the game and we have not played them before, but we are taking nothing for granted there either.

"I suspect they are waiting in the long grass to take a few scalps."

Italy are relatively new to the sport, since it started a little more than two years ago in a region called Veneto - the same area where the country's national rugby side started one hundred years ago, and this will be the nation's first sanctioned tournament that will earn them a position on the IWRF world ranking list.

Team manager Claudio da Ponte says the team have been preparing by going through some unofficial test matches.

"We know that we still have to work very hard to reach the other ranked national teams, but this is a great chance for us, and I know that all players and coaches will give the best they can," he said.

"Every team for us will be a great challenge, but the first match against Holland will say the truth about our chance to qualify for the European Champs."

The Czech Republics wheelchair rugby team is celebrating its 20th anniversary in the sportThe Czech Republic wheelchair rugby team is celebrating its 20th anniversary in the sport

Meanwhile, the Czech Republic is celebrating their 20th anniversary in the game, with 30 active players and 10 on the recreational side.

However, like many countries, they still struggle to secure adequate funding, which David Lukes, President of CRWR and coach of the national team, says is their biggest challenge.

"People in Czech Republic respect our sport and everybody around who makes our game possible," he said.

"We have only one big problem, which is finding money and sponsors for our sport.

"Players have to pay a portion of the costs by themselves and this negatively influences the development and growth of wheelchair rugby as a sport; it also has a negative effect on work with rookies and newcomers.

"With that being said, we are lucky to have people and organisations that help us and I would like to thank all of them for their support."

Talking about the upcoming tournament in Dublin, Lukes went on to say: "Ireland and Netherlands are on the same level now.

"I saw both teams during Rugbymania, and they are getting better and better.

"Ireland will have the benefit of home environment and fan support; Netherlands has Thomas Pool back in the national team line up.

"We have the best team since the 2007 European Championship, and we hope that we finish in the first two places to get the opportunity to go to Belgium and place among the best 12 teams in Europe."

Tonight's matches will see the hosts going head to head with the Czechs, followed by a match between the Netherlands and Italy.

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