This September a new RFU regulation will come into place at age group level: the half game rule. From the start of the coming season all match day squad players at every level of youth, junior and minis rugby, from ages 6 to 18, are now mandated to play at least half a game.
In this positive step, the RFU is attempting to live up to its stated aim of ‘investing in schools, communities and society.’
Fundamentally, this is also a move of self-preservation, for it comes on the back of reports suggesting that 10,000 youngsters a year are lost to rugby. Nevertheless, the RFU’s decision should be greeted with positivity.
English rugby has the largest playing pool of any nation, but with talent centred around ultra-competitive private schools and academies, the sports’ community grassroots have been suffering in recent years.
Finally, it appears the RFU are taking concrete steps to try and arrest the alarming drop off in participation figures. A healthy and secure grassroots game, with senior clubs receiving a steady stream of talent from junior and colts set ups, is the bedrock of English rugby.
The regulation also follows feedback from the National Rugby Survey in which 85% of coaches and teachers agreed that Half Game rule is a positive change for Age Grade rugby and 90% who did it reported positive benefits.
Hopefully, this move will ensure healthy playing numbers in both junior and senior rugby, broaden rugby’s appeal and shift the playing culture away from a ‘win at all costs’ mentality.
Increasingly, age group rugby has felt geared towards results rather than enjoyment, perhaps as a result of professionalism, and so any return to the traditional values of inclusion and sportsmanship should be welcomed.
The official RFU promotional video states, “half game is about getting young players to play more rugby, not training and then sitting on the bench,” citing evidence that players who play half a game six times more likely to enjoy it than those who don’t.
It also stresses that this is now compulsory regulation, although it is likely to require the vigilance of parents, coaches and referees to ensure it is enforced.
The rule has been employed in New Zealand since 2014 – at all levels below First XV – and has got considerable buy in from stake holders, despite initial concerns about the impact on competitive spirit.
Hopefully, the rule shift will lead to an increase in the quality of coaching also, with coaches forced to focus on the development of weaker, less experienced players throughout the whole squad in order to win, rather than rely of the abilities of star players.
Ultimately, all is good in theory, and it remains to be seen whether this move will lead to concrete results. Nevertheless, it shows a level of engagement with grassroots rugby by the RFU that is encouraging. Rugby is not all about winning, and it is good to see the games’ governing body make a public statement affirming this.
Written by Joe Ronan