It’s no secret that Adam Hills loves sport. The Last Leg, the chat show that made the comedian a star in the UK, was born as part of the coverage for the 2012 Paralympics. And yet a big part of the appeal of Grow Another Foot is discovering just how truly, madly and deeply Hills loves one particular kind of sport: Physical Disability Rugby League.
If you’ve been wondering what Hills (who was born without a right foot) has been up to these last five years, wonder no more. Early on in this one-hour special Hills says ‘I don’t know how I became Mr Rugby League’: possibly putting his comedy career on hold to train as a rugby player, passing up massive gigs because they took place on training night, and hosting rugby coverage on the UK’s Channel 4 has something to do with it.
In the UK, he trains and plays at Warrington, a club he helped form (PDRL was invented in Australia; Hills introduced it to the UK). They’re all mates, the coach – Shaun Briscoe, a former professional player whose brother has a range of disabilities – is Hills’ bestie, everything’s going great … until the PDRL World Cup.
Mates vs country
In 2023 there’s going to be four nations playing: England, Wales, New Zealand and Australia. It’s Hills dream to play rugby at international level, and technically he qualifies for the English team. But as he says, ‘How do I choose between my best mates and my country?’
As it turns out, fairly easily. Briscoe, only half-jokingly, points out that the choice for Hills is really between playing for his country or winning the World Cup. When Hills returns to Sydney to train and try to qualify, it’s clear that there’s an uphill climb ahead. The players are keen and have heart. They just don’t have the skills or the experience, let alone the money to pay to get to the UK. Yet.
These kind of specials are all about promoting the game, which means a lot of moving backstories to let us know the true power of sport (it’s not like rugby is a particularly beautiful game to watch). Honestly, you’d have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by some of these players, who’ve overcome more than the usual adversity to get out there and play.
The struggle isn’t just physical; one UK player, who tragically lost both parents and his brother in quick succession, was lifted out of a very dark place by the support of Hills and the Warrington team.
All that aside, this story takes place in the real world, where the plucky grit of a heartwarming team of underdogs doesn’t prevent them from being absolutely pummelled on the rugby field by a team that’s physically bigger and stronger. Throw in (then throw up) a stomach bug that chews through the team just when they need their best players most, and we’re looking at a happy ending that’s more about what the team learned along the way than holding aloft the championship trophy.
Hills is an endearing and charismatic central figure, and his commitment to the sport and his team mates constantly shines through. He’s not afraid to show the emotional and physical toll it all takes; it’s a side of him that the usually polished performer (occasional rants on The Last Leg aside) rarely displays.
But while this is obviously a salute to determination, overcoming the odds, the power of mateship and the majesty of sporting achievement, a persistent theme throughout is just how physically risky taking part in full contact rugby is for a lot of the players.
It’s not just the players putting body parts on the line that they can ill afford to lose (a busted ankle is bad news for Hills because it’s not like he’s got a spare). In at least one case (star Australian player Bryce Crane), rugby is what disabled him in the first place. And now he’s back for more.
Rugby is what brings these men together, even as it tears them apart; there’d be a joke here about Hills risking the ‘stand up’ part of his stand up comedy career, but no doubt he’s already made it himself.
Adam Hills: Grow Another Foot is on Paramount+ from 29 September.