Should size or age dictate in amateur rugby? Just ask Russell Crowe

Very little expertise required to see that New Zealand has got it right in this regards

Children play rugby in Auckland, New Zealand where the game is split on size and weight rather than age. Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images

Children play rugby in Auckland, New Zealand where the game is split on size and weight rather than age. Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images

 

In the past rugby aficionados have been sensitive about this space not being “paaasitive” enough towards the oval ball game. So, with a view to not letting a crisis go to waste, maybe now is the time to examine if no less than Russell Crowe has helped pinpoint a route towards constructive change.

An idle trawl through the barren sporting landscape revealed how Hollywood’s favourite he-man owns the South Sydney rugby league club. Crowe loves the game, played it as a kid, and has poured a lot of energy and money into the club since buying into it in 2005.

There’s enough scene-chewing evidence to suggest the boisterous Oscar winner is typecast for any kind of rugby. But his enthusiasm appears anything but pretend, as evident from his passionate belief that junior rugby league players should be graded on size and weight rather than age.

Crowe has written about rugby league in Australia being beset by a “massive brain and community involvement drain” in between under-12’s and under 14’s. In other words, when kids leave primary school and move to secondary. Sound familiar?

He wrote about watching games and seeing 11-year-olds breaking elbows, wrists, receiving mild concussions and getting “head-slammed and battered.” On every occasion, Crowe argued, it was a much larger player exerting physical dominance over skill. It’s hardly an unknown theme here too.

Overwhelmingly physical

Central to his view is that the game has to do everything to make it as safe as possible for kids. Perhaps just as importantly, and for a number of reasons including self-interest, it also has to be seen to be doing so by parents alarmed at how overwhelmingly physical rugby has become.

So what, you might say: league is league and union is union. Except Crowe’s exemplar is the junior rugby union system in New Zealand. There, kids have been split up by weight for years. All-Black history indicates it works too, enough for Australia to start doing the same.

Not only that but the greatest rugby country of all was on the verge of introducing a new adult national club competition next month restricted to players weighing under 85kgs, or about 13-and-a-half stone. The Covid-19 pandemic has stopped it for now. But the ambition remains.

That’s because, even in New Zealand, they are concerned about falling numbers of male players, both at under-age level and among adults playing club rugby. There are multiple reasons for that but chief among them is the overwhelming emphasis in the modern game on physical power.

The old line about rugby being the sport for all shapes and sizes is becoming more redundant every year. Shapes may be different but it’s not just at professional level that they all come encased in muscle. A game of evasion has become an exercise in collision.

Crowe is hardly alone in standing pitch-side and wincing when physically precocious kids steamroll their way over smaller, lighter contemporaries. Reassurances about the importance of tackling technique might be more credible if teams weren’t packed with the biggest and heaviest.

Twice their size

Maybe some game youngsters relish the challenge of taking down an opponent twice their size. But most can be forgiven for thinking more of a priority might be nourishment rather than punishment. Crucially, so too can their parents.

Last November’s ESRI report on rugby participation here outlined a pattern of drop-out from the game when children go from primary school to secondary. Others stop participating after leaving secondary. Rugby’s hardly unique in that. But it is singular in how physical size is a factor.

If that is being addressed as a very real problem down under then those at the helm in Ireland have to take note, not just at under-age but in relation to participation at grassroots club level too.

The World Cup-winning coach, Graham Henry, has said he fears the trend in New Zealand is veering towards American football where the game is only really played by professionals after college level.

Henry has long been an advocate of weight restrictions, arguing how many want to continue playing as adults, have the skills, but find themselves simply not big enough. To get to such a point through, enthusiasm has to be maintained through adolescence.

Dividing underage players through weight rather than age is hardly some silver bullet. The big counter-argument is that kids, not unnaturally, would ideally like to play with their friends and contemporaries and if they can’t they might drop out anyway.

There’s also the reality of awful adolescent self-consciousness where being seen to be different in any way is an appalling prospect, never mind in relation to body shape. Two-year gaps between teenagers can feel like a chasm as well.

Sceptics might even paint an alarmist picture of fraught public ‘weigh-ins’ with beanpole six-footers bracketed alongside pudgy teammates, or even some on the divide sweating like boxers to make weight.

Participation corner

It doesn’t seem to be a problem in New Zealand though. Instead, a much more relevant portrait is being painted there of the nation’s most popular sport fighting its participation corner by acknowledging reality.

That is that under-age rugby players really do come in all shapes and sizes so bluntly dividing them on age for such a physical game is old-hat.

Changing that in Ireland requires a change of mindset but the plusses of doing so outweigh the negatives. For one thing it is fairer and safer. Another is that it’s a lot more fun to play when you’re not being pulped by power.

In the long term there is also abundant evidence from New Zealand that their youth system encourages skills that ultimately come to the fore at elite professional level. Taking care of skills while your body takes care of the business of growing up seems only logical.

It just seem such an obvious route to go down. No expertise is required to recognise that size matters. Just ask Russell Crowe.

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