Fun and games
Phil Clarke believes a new format, that promotes fun and involvement, can help rugby league prosper.
Last Updated: 22/04/13 1:59pm
I'm sometimes guilty of focusing too much on the players in Super League, and ignore the fact that the start of the journey for most of them has taken place about 10-15 years before we ever see them on Sky Sports.
If England aren't successful in this year's World Cup then the usual investigations and debates will take place. How do we improve the standards in this country? Will we ever beat our southern hemisphere rivals?
Well, a very important breakthrough is taking place as I speak. The West Cumbria Primary competition has just begun and is the start of what I believe to be a significant step forward for those youngsters getting their first experience of the sport. Before I go into explaining it and how I think it will benefit the game, I'd like to show you an article written by a former coach of mine called Phil Gould. Like me, he is passionate about rugby league and wants to see it grow and prosper. He wrote this article for the Sydney Morning Herald a couple of years ago.
He said: "I was watching an under-10s game a few weeks ago. While the official game was being played, behind me another game was starting. In this ''unofficial game'', a number of kids of all ages, shapes and sizes came together for an impromptu match. The kid with the long blond hair and the ball in his hands held court.
"Do youse wanna play tag or tackle?" Most yelled out, "Tackle!", but immediately a couple said, "I don't wanna tackle". Another said: "I'm not tackling Yousef, he's too big."
"OK," said the blond-haired kid, "Yousef, you can't run, you have to walk; and Jayson, Tom and Jack are playing touch footy; and the rest of us are playing tackle."
"Hooray," said the group. Yousef argued: "I wanna run too; that's not fair." The blond kid conceded. "OK. But we only have to touch you with two hands and you are not allowed to palm us off. OK?" Yousef nodded his agreement, happy he got something from the negotiation.
"OK," said the blond kid, ''we'll make that tree the sideline, the bins are the sideline on that side; you score past that bin over there and our try line is past that guy's chair. No play-the-balls, touch the ground and pass, three tackles and you have to kick.'' Rock-paper-scissors decided who kicked off and the game was under way.
For the next 15 minutes I observed the two games being played. Out on the real field the players ran through the choreographed patterns that you see in adult games. The referee barked instructions and kept them to the rule book. Parents and coaches screamed from the sidelines, and the players fought over who got next run and next kick. A couple of the better players were dominating the play, and as soon as the big No.10 for the team in green received the ball, everyone got out of his way and he scored another try. Some of the kids were enjoying themselves. A few of the others hardly got a touch.
In the other game, there was no referee, no coaches, no parents yelling from the sidelines, no field markings, a lot of talking and plenty of laughing. There was the odd spat over what was a knock-on or whether someone had been touched or not; but they sorted it out. The game kept moving, no penalties, some playing hard, others playing soft, everyone getting a fair go with the ball. The kids were experimenting with the chip kicks, long passes and flick passes they saw on TV. No one cared who scored and the result meant nothing. They were just playing. I saw beetroot-red faces from all the running and all the laughing. Big Yousef had just about stopped to a walk anyway; he was tired.
I looked back at the main game. I saw a lot of kids looking a little stressed with their experience as they tried to please those yelling from the sidelines. I looked back at the game over on the side and everyone was having a great time. I thought "Who's this meant to be for?"
His last sentence is the most important one. Sport is supposed to be about FUN and ENJOYMENT for those taking part, especially when they're still at primary school. The new format of rugby league for those in the Cumbrian experiment is for the players' benefit.
The games between teams have a festival format, not a league structure to it. There are no match officials and no coaches allowed on the field. It's almost aimed at creating the game that Phil Gould describes the kids enjoying above. There is no criticism from the sidelines or pressure to perform. The games are played on smaller pitches than usual, partly because the numbers in a team are smaller. They aim to play four vs. four in the Under 7's, five vs. five at eight years of age and six vs. six when they get to nine.
The aim is to encourage each player to get as much involvement as they can; they don't have substitutes and try to balance the strengths of the teams. It's not about who wins or by how many points. The ones having the best time are seen to be the winners.
Marnie Jackson, Coach of Clifton under 8s, said: "The format that the community clubs have introduced and embraced in West Cumbria has been great, not only for new players, but also players who have played for a few seasons. All players get more touches and try scoring opportunities which has been great for confidence, parents also like this approach and have praised the child-friendly approach."
Most of the boys and girls won't go on to play in the 2021 World Cup, or the one in 2024, but hopefully they'll enjoy the experience, develop some discipline and team work and embark on a healthy lifestyle! We need to remember that it's not all about the elite player.
Martyn Rothwell, who is responsible for this new initiative, said: "The hours that have been invested by volunteer coaches to introduce Puma Little League and coach the current mini and mod format has made a significant impact on the sport, we have to recognise that, but we now have an opportunity to use a strong evidence base from child development experts and elite coaches from within the game to introduce a format that will make a good game even better for the kids."
Many kids get turned away from rugby league due to the difference in size and power of their opponents, but it doesn't need to be like this. Some kids are tougher than others but it's not meant to be a 'toughness test' when you're still at primary school. That can wait a few years.
Smaller-sided games have been advocated by the experts in Dutch football for years. Why has it taken us so long to hear it?
During the 1990's I spent some time at the Sydney Roosters in Australia. The CEO at the time was an intelligent man called Bernie Gurr. He now lives in the USA and has commented that over there they try to match players of equal size and temperament in the sports that they like to play.
I know that change isn't easy but this seems obvious to me. What is being proposed won't cost any more money or need any more volunteers. It won't require more referees and it certainly won't need any scoreboards or league tables. But it will need some people who run the teams and competitions for those under the age of 11 to embrace change and accept that there might be a better way for young people to enjoy their first taste of rugby league.