IN a change of theme for our Roving Reporter series, guest columnist John Evans explains his concerns about talented kids being pushed too hard and too soon, which he believes is creating huge problems in terms of transitioning Under-18s players into the adult club game.
DESPITE what the press releases and Tweets say, we are losing players to rugby in terms of the 15-a-side game at an alarming (perhaps catastrophic) rate. It’s fantastic to see growth in the Women’s game and in derivatives like tri-rugby, touch and walking-touch, but we cannot get away from the fact that we have lost many of those who would have been playing some 20-30 years ago.
Predominantly, we’ve lost social players who want to put on their boots, run around for 80 minutes (or preferably less), get up a sweat and have a few beers with their mates afterwards. We’ve lost the shy, spotty-faced youth who pitches up at training on a wet Tuesday night and ends up on the coach home from an away game having the time of his life with his new friends for life.
We’ve all heard the reasons: ‘other things to do’, ‘kids aren’t interested now in club rugby’, ‘the game’s not safe’, ‘it’s not the same game that we played’ and so on.
Each of those reasons has a little substance to it but you can find examples everywhere of them being disproved.
In my neck of the woods – North Edinburgh – alone, Leith Accies have record numbers of players built around a club that is inclusive and has a great social base; Trinity Accies can field a squad drawn almost totally from Former Pupils of Trinity Academy (and even those boys who didn’t go to the school are married to girls who did!); and BATs (North Edinburgh’s predominant community club) have over 600 young people per week engaged in rugby and next season will have close to 100 engaged in playing for the club sides. Broughton, Inverleith and Edinburgh Northern are also battling against the tide in that corner of the capital with varying degrees of success.
Elsewhere, Highland are delivering remarkable results and there are numerous other examples across the country.
So where is it not working?
We are losing the middle ground.
If you’re never going to make it as a pro and you enjoy rugby then you will find your club and continue to play.
But if you are told you are going to be a superstar at 14 and then don’t make it then there is a very good chance you’ll be lost to the game. We need to change that.
How many veteran players do readers know who, at 14, 15 or 16, were going to be a Scotland cap? Picked for city or regional teams and recognised for that at the time, before others caught up in terms of size or skill and the player moved on to local club rugby. Brilliant. Great memories and some fantastic stories. No hard feelings or regrets.
Now, we set young players up to fail. Pathway squads whittled down at an age when teenage sensitivities are at their highest. Agents hunting for signings around schools. Pampered players in independent schools realising that there isn’t an army of lackies around to pick up kit, provide rubs, sort post protectors and flags when they go to adult club rugby. We’ve created rods for our own backs.
Is there another way?
North Harbour, one of New Zealand’s leading regions, has binned its representative age-group teams at under 14-years of age. The feeling was that selection was being based on size and a squad dominated by the post-pubescent, bearded 14-year-olds from certain backgrounds meant that those who might develop later had no chance and were then excluded from the pyramid at an early age. North Harbour want to focus on inclusivity rather than exclusivity.
We have the same problem in Scotland although here it is the independent schools that dominate.
Look at the team sheets of the schools that have won the Scottish Schools’ Cup in recent years and count the number of players still playing. Between the ages of 24 and 27, a player should be at their prime yet the attrition rate for boys who play in a Schools’ Cup Final is astonishing. Player retention is abysmal. Of course, we have our George Turners and Blair Kinghorns and that’s fantastic, but where have their team-mates gone? Most of them lost to the game as players.
I’m sure I am not alone in having heard stories from reliable sources of Under-16 pathway squad players not making the national squad and seeing themselves as failures. They contemplate giving up the game but thanks to a set of great club coaches they are talked out of it.
There is no doubt that the school conference system is a great idea but we have to be careful. We want players to enjoy playing. We see examples of a school perhaps only having 12 players but their opponents insist on playing 15 so they get the points and a big win margin. We know those schools only too well.
BATs and the Crusaders (the charity team set up to promote awareness and prevention of male cancers) have set up the Junior Crusaders and this spring will draw from eight clubs to field an invitational Under-15s squad to play in five fixtures. The response has been amazing. Last season saw some great open, running rugby as players from a range of ability levels came together in Barbarian-style games. The evidence is clear. Players want to play and enjoy it. Our focus on developing the professional game at the cost of the club game means we are haemorrhaging players who should be staying in the game.
Yes, we need the top of the pyramid but if we take away the broad and strong base of the pyramid, we’re left with a pimple!
Let’s think about abandoning pathway squads until the age of 17 or 18 and focus on building a strong player base across the clubs. The alternative is a US-style progression where football, basketball and baseball players go from High School to College to University to National Leagues in hugely decreasing ratios.
Follow this path and our clubs disappear and there will be no mini-rugby to capture our stars who will feed the national and pro games in ten years time, and no spectators to watch those that do squeeze through.