It is not often that mini rugby commands the kind of media coverage normally reserved for the Six Nations but that was just the case earlier this year when Surrey Rugby, one of the Rugby Football Union’s constituent bodies, unveiled a radical plan for their end of season festivals.
Clubs were asked to enter mixed ability squads rather than stream players for the traditional A, B and C/Development competitions that had previously decided the best teams in the county from Under 7 to Under 12. It was also argued that a change to the format of the festivals would encourage a more level playing field with officials deciding that no official scores would be recorded and no overall champion crowned. Teams would simply play on a round-robin basis with the emphasis on ‘development of individual skills and enjoyment for all participants’ rather than results and trophies.
The overhaul stemmed from concerns within the RFU that the competitive nature of these festivals was putting many youngsters off from playing the game and therefore harming the governing body’s efforts to attract newcomers to rugby union and keep those already playing engaged with the sport.
The decision caused ‘outrage’, sensational headlines accused the RFU of ‘going soft’ and former players including my fellow columnist and ex-England international Simon Halliday were ‘appalled’ at what was seen as the latest example of political correctness gone mad.
The RFU stood its ground, confident that research gives credence to its New Rules of Play but Surrey Rugby, having originally been determined to ‘improve the playing experience for all children’ relented to pressure by lifting a ban on streaming and the threat of sanction for those clubs not adhering.
The furore had died down by the time hundreds of players gathered for the first of these festivals a fortnight ago with the controversy appearing to do little to detract from their popularity although some clubs had reportedly withdrawn in protest. For those present, many of the original questions remained. No scoring? No winners? Heads were still shaking as the rules were once again spelt out at the second festival this past weekend and it will likely be a similar story at the third and final outing later this month.
As honourable the RFU’s attempt at an inclusive policy, are they not in danger of alienating players who are no strangers to competition whether it’s sports day at school, playing the Xbox or simply racing a sibling up the stairs.They understand and arguably thrive on competition from an early age and as a coach of an U7s side I know that scores and results matter to many – but admittedly not all – of our players having played in ‘traditional’ festivals elsewhere this season.
The RFU insist players still experience winning and losing but it is clearly not the same if nothing is at stake. If youngsters can’t get that level of competition from rugby union, there are many other sports that can cater to that and would welcome such athletes. When trying to boost participation, should the RFU even risk alienating itself and the sport?
The desire for mixed ability squads at the lower end of the age scale is understandable and perhaps wise as you initiate youngsters into the sport and attempt to build up their skill set, but ‘no winners’ festivals do not sit so easily with players, coaches or parents.
As coaches, we strive to create an enjoyable environment that encourages learning and in turn hopefully produces able and enthusiastic players. That eagerness is then further fuelled by the chance to test themselves against others and it is the excitement around such scenarios that will have them hooked.
The RFU insist that they are giving youngsters what they want and are creating a ‘player-led experience’ as opposed to one defined by adults. Much of the theory behind the RFU approach, led by development director Steve Grainger, makes a lot of sense but not all.
The RFU’s concerns about playing numbers in the future will have been heightened by the latest research that revealed a drop in the number of people playing rugby union on a regular basis.
Sport England, the organisation responsible for investing public money in grass roots sport, has put the sport ‘on notice’ and grass-roots funding will be cut if the RFU are unable to reverse the trend before the end of the year. The loss of potential funding may not alarm the richest union in the world too much, but the drop in playing numbers certainly will having invested so much in its Lead Up and Legacy plan that aims to ‘deliver a lasting participation legacy for rugby union in England’.
Next year’s World Cup is likely to be the biggest and most successful ever staged and offers the RFU and unrivalled opportunity to take the game to the masses and drive a significant increase in participation – both on and off the pitch.
Sport England appears convinced that the RFU is on the right track having opted not to immediately reduce rugby union’s funding despite the drop in engagement. They have given the sport another year to offer evidence of growth, failure to do so would set the alarm bells ringing and represent a costly defeat before a ball had even been kicked at the World Cup.
What are your experiences of coaching mini rugby, how can governing bodies create the best environment to attract and keep players in the sport?