By September 2016, a raft of rule changes will have been brought in at schoolboy and junior club level. These will ultimately affect the future of the game as whole. This could either be for the better, or for the worse in the opinion of many, but the goal is to attract more young players to the sport, which should only benefit the game in the long run.
The changes will take place as of September 2015 onwards, and the different age grade rule changes will take place at different times until full implementation by September 2016. Teachers and coaches will be given extensive support so that they understand these changes and can implement them fully so that everything is streamlined by the time players reach the Under 18 level.
The main changes include:
- Number of players on the field rising over time from 4-15 over a seven year period
- No kicking until U11 level (Year 6)
- No kicking at goal until U14 level (Year 8)
- Lineout introduction delayed until U14 level (Year 9), uncontested
- Live scrummaging introduced at U13 level (Year 8), with only 6 players in the scrum
- Tackling fully introduced at the U9 level (Year 4)
The ultimate goal of the changes in the rules appears to be a bridging of the skills gap at an early age; this can be seen with the fact that scrummaging will no longer be set aside for the bigger boys, and tackling will be introduced with fewer players on the field. One thing that does stand out is that kicking will be limited to completely nonexistent at the younger age groups. This actually reminds me of the story of Jonny Wilkinson, who often recounts the story of himself and his brother staying out until late honing their kicking skills, and jumping at the chance to take shots during matches – albeit some said England were boring during their 2003 World Cup win, it is safe to say that the tournament could have ended very differently had we not had the prowess of Wilkinson, finely tuned at such a young age, on hand.
Another element of these changes is the scary thought that the game will no longer be a game for all shapes and sizes, as this fair sport of ours has sold itself for so long now. Will the changes in the rules just mean we are producing some finely tuned athletes that may be more accustomed to the sport in the form of league rather than union? One solution to this is age and weight bandings being introduced, as is the case in American Football. A comparable sport with rugby, there have been restrictions for some time in schoolboy American Football. This would mean that if an age grade player is over a certain weight, they cannot play within their own age grade, but will instead join the age grade above – would this work in the UK? The other consideration here is the psychological effects that this will have at an impressionable age – telling someone they are too big for one group, but thereby potentially becoming the smallest in another (not to mention leaving their friends behind!)
Size has always been used to determine positions in rugby, with the smaller players representing the backs and the larger players the forwards. Improving basic skills at a young age may turn the hulking bruiser of a child in the U8s playing prop into a Jamie Roberts type centre by the U14 grade. The flip side to this is that the larger children at the U13/14 level may get a certain enjoyment at demolishing the opposition scrum. If scrums are removed, this will not only be taken away from them, but also from coaches who may have been able to use a dominant scrum as a weapon – as it is in the adult game. How will this affect the culture of English rugby as a whole as these young players grow up with coaches not utilising the best of their players in a manner that the sport demands? Having said this, perhaps it is a good thing that the mentality of ‘bigger is better’ is removed from the game; too much in the adult game we now find that the gym culture is almost taking over the basic skills element of the game.
On the whole I believe that these changes will produce positive results in the long run, in terms of the numbers of players involved at a young age and the safety that limited contact through tackling and live scrummaging will bring. However, whilst we will have better athletes across the board, will the development of technical ability in the forwards and the backs take its toll as players only begin to learn these skills three years away from their first senior start? Or will others argue that these skills will be more rounded because they have been learnt after determining althletic ability and choosing positions at a later stage? If my interpretation is incorrect please get in touch via the comment section and have your say about these impending changes.