Brendan Fanning, Sunday Independent
Before a ball was kicked this season – or rather passed three times before the end receiver gets flattened – the mini rugby world was thrown into turmoil. First the IRFU shifted the age grade from 1 July back to 1 January, so as to fall into line with practice elsewhere. Then they ruled that the competitive structure should be taken out of the minis game. If the first was awkward and in some case painful, the second is a good deal more contentious and will resurface for sure before the season is out.
The ‘awkward’ aspect of the date change is that groups who have been chugging along together from under 7s have been split. The painful part is that some of those kids – those born in the second half of the year – have missed out a season’s rugby by leapfrogging up to their new category. Whatever way you look at it, this is time they won’t get back.
All of that however is small beer compared to the decision to scrap the competitive structure. This issue will run for a while yet and the resistance started last season with an email sent from one club to a handful of others looking for support. The nuts and bolts of the argument is that union is imposing an unreal restraint on the trade of mini rugby players and coaches who, the opponents maintain, have been sailing along happily until this ill wind blew in from Lansdowne Road. Eh, not quite.
For sure there is more right than wrong with the minis game in Ireland, but simply because it is well attended – numbers have exploded in the main thanks to the profile provided by our national and provincial sides – doesn’t mean that it couldn’t do with some adjustment.
There are a few bodies within the union’s rugby development who reckon that the game would be better served if kids could get through the first three years at least without being asked to tackle. And they’re right. It doesn’t make sense to ask kids to take and make tackles before they have got to grips with how to pass the ball. But you wouldn’t hold your breath on this fundamental change being made.
Judging by the reaction in some quarters to the IRFU directive on taking the competitive structure out of the game there would be head gaskets blowing all over the shop if tackling was put back until under 10s.
The union’s shift in policy will mean that for minis there will be no cup or league competitions and that blitzes will be affairs where teams get to play lots of games but there will be no knockout conclusion to the day. The argument against this change is frequently irrational.
Consider the following excerpt from an email floated by one Leinster club last season.
“It beggars belief that when you consider the explosion in numbers playing mini rugby in the last five years and the increased competition that we have from other sports such as Soccer and GAA that the IRFU now want to put us back five years in development! This coupled with the current economic slow down will make it more difficult to attract and maintain numbers in rugby where it was no problem to pay subscriptions for two or three different sporting activities in the past. The child will decide this more so than the parent.”
The temperature goes up a few paragraphs later. Consider this passage:
A blitz is a competition full stop. The objective of entering a blitz (Competition) is to win not just to make up the numbers so are we not “emphasising results”? There can be no justification for argument on this point. So why stop leagues and cups which are to all intents exactly the same?
When someone tells you “there can be no justification for argument on this point” it suggests the blinkers are on and the ear buds are wedged in place. And that their point of view is the only one in town.
Some of us would argue that playing is more important than winning, and that the notion of competitive rugby being the ideal environment for promoting skill is bogus. The first casualty of competitive rugby is skill. In minis this translates to giving it to the big kid and encouraging him to run over the top of the opposition rather than passing the ball. And nobody takes more pleasure from this than the winning coach.
They will tell you that the whole team is delighted because they went home with the trophy but in the process how many players never got a pass, and worse still how many never got a game?
Certainly the union’s directive is a serious shift in emphasis, but maybe it’s more illustrative of how far mini rugby had gone away from its core values – participation and skill development – than the degree to which the IRFU are losing the plot. We suspect they are closer to the right track than usual.