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Meet Wheelaroos weapon Bayley McKenna: 'The bloke from Australia with the mullet'

Bayley McKenna has fast gained a reputation as one of the toughest players on the wheelchair rugby league court throughout this World Cup.

The 22-year-old Queenslander has gone viral for his efforts in Australia’s opening pool matches against England and Ireland – from putting his body on the line with massive hits to showing incredible skill and speed in attack.

“Blockbusting”, “most committed player” and a person who “fights for everything” are just some of the ways he has been described by commentators in the United Kingdom. 

And comments on social media are even comparing him to Melbourne Storm sensation Ryan Papenhuyzen – but that may also have something to do with their matching mullets.

Bayley McKenna after Australia's win over Ireland. Photo: RLWC 2021/Getty Sport
Bayley McKenna after Australia's win over Ireland. Photo: RLWC 2021/Getty Sport

But for McKenna – an able-bodied athlete - playing wheelchair rugby league and representing the Australian Wheelaroos is about far more than individual accolades and TikTok views.

In his mind, he’s just playing the game he loves in his own style, and playing for his family, his teammates, and his nation.

If he manages to help put wheelchair rugby league on the map in the meantime, then that’s all for the better.

McKenna takes down an England player in Austalia's opening pool match. Photo: RLWC 2021/Getty Sport
McKenna takes down an England player in Austalia's opening pool match. Photo: RLWC 2021/Getty Sport

“Somehow I’m in the spotlight… it definitely wasn’t intentional,” McKenna said of the newfound attention.

“I like putting my body on the line. It’s my first time repping Australia and I will do anything for this jersey.

“I’m just doing the best I can for my country. I’m not thinking about going viral, but it is cool because it’s getting the game out there.

“Back home in Australia you would go around and talk to people about wheelchair rugby league and they would get it confused with wheelchair rugby, which is murderball.

“Now when we get home, hopefully people will know we played in the Rugby League World Cup. Hopefully it’s definitely getting the name out there.

“I saw a comment on one of the videos saying, ‘my son is glued to the screen watching the bloke from Australia with the mullet'. 

“That’s pretty cool. Even over here the crowds are swinging for Australia. I even had a four-year-old whose name was Dylan and I signed a ball for him and a try poster for him.

“He really wanted to get a photo but they wouldn’t let him on the court… he was crying. Then a security guard picked him up for me and brought him over the barrier so we could get a photo.

“I’d love to see the photo. That’s what it’s all about. It’s getting people behind us and getting the game out there.”

On TikTok, a video of McKenna doing a sideline conversion has over 800,000 views while another clip of his bone-rattling tackle on England’s captain, Tom Halliwell, has more than 450,000 views.

On the official Rugby League World Cup Facebook page, a video of his hat-trick against Ireland has 500,000 views.


What a hat-trick this was from Bayley McKenna. We're still not over that final try 😍 #RLWC2021 | BBC Sport | #AUSIRE

Posted by Rugby League World Cup on Sunday, November 6, 2022

He is getting Facebook friend requests from strangers all around the world.

And he’s not alone, with other Australian players, and teams such as England and France attracting new fans everyday. Crowds are turning out in force in the UK.

With the Wheelchair Rugby League World Cup part of the main event for the first time in the game’s history, McKenna is in awe of what this could all lead to.

McKenna with some big hits

“In a lot of ways, the exposure we’re getting is insane,” he said.

“I can’t even imagine the next World Cup. I’ve already heard they want a 16-team tournament for the next World Cup. There would be four pools, it would be a longer tournament… it’s amazing.

“In Australia, how far it’s come along is insane and I have no doubt it’s going to get bigger and bigger. Hopefully it all pans out and keeps growing.”

McKenna, who says he loves the “big hits and a quick game”, first became involved in wheelchair rugby league in 2019.

But his interest in wheelchair sports in general extends far beyond that, due to his father Darren.

McKenna was just five when his dad lost a leg in an accident.

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A post shared by Bayley McKenna (@bayls.mck.wrl)

“My dad had his accident in May, 2006. Before his accident, I can still remember kicking the footy and passing the footy on the front lawn with him,” McKenna said.

“He’d work 12-hour days and he’d come home and still make the time and effort to kick the footy with me.

“One day my mum got a call saying he’d been in an accident and he was in hospital so she went to see him. I didn’t see him for two weeks. I was so young and didn’t know much about where he was but he was in the hospital in a coma.

“After the accident, I took up the running game with Townsville Brothers. I played for 10 years but then had enough of that because I had my front teeth knocked out.

“We wanted to play something together so we started playing wheelchair basketball. We were always really competitive on the court and we wanted to take it further.”

Bayley McKenna celebrates as part of Queensland's 2022 State of Origin victory. Photo: Scott Radford-Chisholm/QRL
Bayley McKenna celebrates as part of Queensland's 2022 State of Origin victory. Photo: Scott Radford-Chisholm/QRL

After their time in wheelchair basketball, Darren ended up getting the job as the Wheelaroos assistant coach in 2016, switching codes to rugby league.

McKenna remembers his dad going to France for the World Cup in 2017. But his own time in the game didn’t come until two years later when his dad took him into an Australian camp in Sydney as the Wheelaroos prepared for an Ashes series against England.

He started to train with the team and then five of the six coaches actually chose McKenna to be included in Australia’s training squad – the only coach who left him out was Darren, purely because that was not why he brought his son into the camp.

But the other coaches were adamant.

“They just said, ‘we don’t care, we want him’,” McKenna said.

“That was what got me into it. I also wanted to get into a sport where Dad could kind of mentor me. That’s where this sport came in.”

McKenna has also been guided throughout his career by Queensland and Australian wheelchair veteran, Peter Arbuckle.

With both players based in Townsville, alongside teammates Zac Schumacher and Adam Tannock, they have trained together, even when their games were cancelled due to COVID-19.

They have built strongly for this World Cup, with Arbuckle making a pledge to McKenna.

“Pete gave me a promise 18 months ago,” McKenna said.

“He said, ‘I’ll do anything to put this Aussie jersey on with you. I don’t care how many hours and preparation it takes'. 

“There were many points of him giving up and he was pushing through pain barriers because he needs shoulder surgery.

“But he kept his promise. For my first game, I got the Aussie flag from him.”

Australia’s campaign so far includes win one against Ireland and a loss to England.

Tonight - Wednesday, November 9 - they will take on Spain at 9pm AEST in a must-win match to qualify for the semi-finals.

McKenna is named once again and said Australia – ranked No.4 in the world – could see their path to World Cup victory – but, if they beat Spain, they would then need to take down some giants of the wheelchair rugby league game, including No.1 ranked France.

McKenna was named player of the match against Ireland. Photo: RLWC 2021/Getty Sport
McKenna was named player of the match against Ireland. Photo: RLWC 2021/Getty Sport

“This is my first time representing my country. I’m just a small-town kid from north Queensland so I never thought it would happen,” he said.

“I’m here and I’m living it, so I can’t ask for anything better than that.

“We’re hoping to bring home the Cup. We have to get through Spain. That’s our next challenge. They’re a good team, a physical team but if we stick to what we know, we’ll have them.

“Then our next target will be France and hopefully we’ll be up against England in the final.”

Acknowledgement of Country

Queensland Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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