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Softening lower level could make Scots harder to beat

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John Beattie | 18:52 UK time, Sunday, 31 October 2010

I don't know how this would work, but have patience with me. Perhaps rugby at a lower level has to be "softened" to attract new players.

In fact, is touch rugby, so prevalent in other countries but lost without trace here in the UK in relative terms, a key selling point for rugby? Or am I barking up a tree, or just barking?

Former British Lions rugby player Peter Wright and I took part in a night at my club, Glasgow Academicals, on Saturday evening. We both did our bit (unpaid, your honour, except for a bottle of lovely whisky) and then it was question-and-answer time.

In the audience were two great men of Glasgow rugby, Chas Afuakwah and Colin Guthrie, both former Glasgow players. And the questions they put forward had the same two themes as many of the other questions.

The tackles are harder and in the pro game, as Glasgow Warriors' Ruaridh Jackson discovers. Photo: SNS.

The tackles are harder and in the pro game, as Glasgow Warriors' Ruaridh Jackson discovers. Photo: SNS.

Those themes were: how do you narrow a widening gap between your average amateur club player and the super-sized and super-fit professional? And, is rugby at the top level just so physical that it can't, and perhaps shouldn't, be copied at a lower level?

I await these autumn Tests, as an example, with held breath as, having watched the Kiwi rugby this weekend, the collisions might just be registered on the Richter scale on some remote outpost built specifically for predicting earthquakes.

Firstly to the "gap" question. Peter is coach of Glasgow Hawks - an amateur club that trains three times a week as a team. There's more to it than that, but the key is the dedication and attempt at replicating the professional game.

Most young lads who go on to play international rugby are spotted in their mid-teens but don't play professional rugby until they are around 20. In between that time, they play for their clubs.

So, in answer to the first bit about narrowing the gap, it can only be done from below and, if you want to get nearer the pros, you have to train like pros and join a club that wants you to do that.

This means, I think, that Scottish amateur clubs will now train more than twice a week and all players need to be on daily conditioning schedules.

The second theme is trickier. My own personal experience from my friends is that mums and dads love their kids playing mini-rugby. Oh, it's fantastic. A Sunday afternoon, coffee-sipping while huddled against the wind, lots and lots of kids filling rugby pitches for as far as you can see, catching up with old friends, perhaps a picnic, a trip somewhere new, maybe a gin and tonic for mum and then home with a sweaty, happy, hungry, healthy child who will now sleep all night.

And then it gets tougher. The hits get higher - and harder. The boys get bigger, the girls drop out, the shoulder pads go on, the pre-match chanting becomes more ferocious, and then kids and parents drop out.

I think the statistic in Scotland is that for every 100 children who play mini-rugby, just one will go on to become a senior rugby player.

I might be in a minority here, but I think there are two levels of sport.

At the top level, a few elite, highly trained, strong, massively powerful men are paid to win games for their club or their country and entertain us in the process. We'll watch them in the autumn Tests. In fact, the Kiwis will do a little dance to keep us amused as well. Do you honestly believe that's tradition? Er, no, it's entertainment gone daft.

Oh, there's a shadowy area in the middle of a few quid here and there, but almost all the other rugby players play for fun and to be with friends and, while they might have some ambition in the game, they are principally testing themselves at a level with which they are comfortable.

Only the lads who will one day be professionals are training to a different rhythm.

But, as I read a fascinating article about Sonny Bill Williamson joining his grass roots Kiwi club and taking part in their weekly "touch rugby night", I thought, now, we don't do that here.

Maybe touch rugby, without the contact, the hits, the shoulder pads, the rucking and the scrummaging is underused and could be a tool for keeping players involved in the game longer and prevent the massive mini-rugby drop out.

In these modern times, of course, that is if their partners allowed it.

For the record, the Hawks' third training night is a touch rugby night, on a Monday, most of the players make it and they sit second in the Scottish league and are gunning for the top with some of their players destined for the pro game.

Maybe, just maybe, it helps bridge the "gap" too.


  • Comment number 1.

    I think you make a good point John. I have just reached the stage with my son where he's moved from mini to midi rugby at S1 level and the intensity has dramatically increased. The boys love it but I see the parents that are not used to the physical side of rugby visibly cringing at the level of contact the boys are going through. My son also plays football and it is a completely different mentality there with parents almost baying for blood at the games with refs having little control over the attitude of both players and spectators.
    In my opinion a few things need to be done to help make the game stay attractive to rugby parents.
    1) A continued focus on refereeing games to make it as safe as possible for the players without affecting the physical nature of the game. That involves strict enforcement on bad and dirty tackles and a close eye kept on potentially dangerous situations on the pitch, ie. lots of discussion between coaches and referees on poor technique, mismatches in size, etc. There should never be a reason why any of the coaches or ref cannot stop play for a safety concern (contrary to what I witnessed yesterday in a soccer game!!)
    2) Coaches to have their primary focus on safety when they are teaching and practicing skills and technique. Learning how to tackle properly, proper positioning and technique in scrums, what to do in a dangerous situation. My workplace has an undercurrent of safety running through the whole organisation. Rugby should have the same attitude.
    3) The SRU should get its act together and sort the laws of the game out at every level. The current situation stands at club rugby having one set of laws, private schools having their own interpretation, and another subset of "Borders rugby" that I heard people speaking of recently. For instance players are told that they can hand-off, push in the scrum, wheel the scrum, oppose in the line-out, etc. depending on where they are playing this week. Crazy! I'm confused, the players are confused. It's just asking for trouble when somebody is unexpectantly exposed to something new like that.

    Hope this helps.

  • Comment number 2.

    I meant to add something about touch rugby too.
    I think that it’s a great idea if we want to encourage a higher skill level in our game. The ball handling skills of the antipodeans stem from their love of playing Touch Rugby, especially in the close season. When living in London, there were plenty of Touch tournaments taking place in the summer involving 15-aside players, non rugby players, women, vets and other groups. It is taken very seriously.
    I think it’s a great way of increasing ball skills, positional awareness, balance and most importantly team-play. In Touch you have to be aware of where your support is, you need to know how to open up a gap in the oppo with proper running angles, sleight of hand, a well timed pass and good communication with your team. That’s a completely different perspective of the game to the crash, bang, wallop of taking your man on physically and laying it back in a ruck.
    The sooner these tourneys can be arranged in Scotland the better it will be for the game. Summertime I reckon, sunshine, firm ground, barbeques … sounds great!

  • Comment number 3.

    Hi Harpo, just for your info the SRU are currently delivering a new coaching course called Rugby Ready with the main foucs being on player safety in tackle technique, scrum position and basic body position for contact.

    With regards to your second point there are touch tournaments played in scotland- Glasgow, Dundee, Edinburgh, aberdeen are the ones i know about, but i presume ther are more. Maybe they need to be marketed better.

  • Comment number 4.

    Harpo, what's a rugby parent?

    John, I agree 100%, touch is great fun and thats all you need to keep kids and parents interested in the game.

  • Comment number 5.

    ‘The sooner these tourneys can be arranged in Scotland the better it will be for the game.’

    There is no lack of development or opportunities for people to play touch rugby in Scotland.

    Organised competitive touch has been played in Scotland since 1994, and there are now about 5000 registered touch players in Scotland, and established league competitions and weekend tournaments throughout the country (Edinburgh alone has three separate summer leagues).

    Pretty much every fortnight in the summer there are open entry tournaments across Scotland, with some counting towards the Scottish Touch Series, an annual competition that attracts not only Scotland’s top sides but also teams from the UK, Ireland and mainland Europe. And in September Glasgow hosted the fourth annual National Touch Championships between representative sides from Scotland’s region. The sport’s governing body, the Scottish Touch Association, also has a partnership agreement with the Scottish Rugby Union to jointly work on further disseminating the sport and creating common benefits for both sports.

    Internationally, Scotland’s national touch teams have won at least one international title in each of the past four summers and the country’s Men’s Open side are the current European Champions, winning that title in Bristol this July.

    And last but certainly not least, the Touch World Cup 2011 will be held in Edinburgh next June, the first time the event will be held in Europe.

    Rugbygirlz makes the comment that maybe the sport could be better marketed. To cut a long story short, a lot of effort has gone into marketing the sport in Scotland. But as anybody working in a minority sport will tell you, getting the Scottish sports media to take interest in anything other than football, golf and rugby can be a tough ask.

    For more information about touch in Scotland, try the following links:

  • Comment number 6.

    John, I played mini rugby, then dabbled at university dropping out as the demands of training v a medical degree meant something had to give. Upon leaving Uni I joined a club as a social player but found that hand injuries were becoming a problem with work and had to quit. Now at 32 I play Touch (when given a pass out at the weekend) and find it allows me to play without needing to commit to three nights of training or run the risk of injury and causing big problems at work or difficulties in looking after the kids.
    Whilst I would like to play proper Rugby, touch offers me a way of chucking a ball around with my pals and staying involved in the game, surely a good option for those of us who cannot afford to or want to engage in the physicality of the game.
    My point? Touch is a great way for this useless old back-row forward to still feel like he plays the game and therefore presumably anybody. Its improved my handling and awareness no end too.

  • Comment number 7.

    Hi TwoEsses,

    I'd limit your statement to "getting the Scottish sports media to take interest in anything other than football ... " but I get your point!
    Thanks for letting us know more about Touch, I'll look more into it for my son.
    I guess I mean a "rugby parent" as someone like myself ... mum or dad taxiing matey to his various training and match sessions, and standing on the touchline in the cold wind and rain for eight months of the year, and ending up washing his extemely muddy kit afterwards.

    Thanks again.

  • Comment number 8.

    Not sure I completely understand your point to be honest John, the fact the professional game is "better" than the amateur game is no surprise really? If I was paid to play rugby full time, given the training / diet advice needed to reach optimum levels then yes I would be a better player than I am now, I think everyone accepts there is a gap between the professional game and the amateur game but if that gap disappears how do professional rugby players justify their wages??

    Always enjoyed the odd bit of touch rugby as well, it's a valuable training tool and definitely very effective at helping you to identify the best options to retain posession effectively and also evade defences. It's always been as part of rugby training though rather than as a totally separate entity. I enjoy the physical aspect of rugby so touch has it's positives but obviously some negatives as well.

    Never played rugby as a younger lad so can't comment on the progression through the ranks but I can see why a sudden jump in physicality would be enough to push some younger players out of the game

  • Comment number 9.

    I completely agree that we don’t use touch enough in this country. But I disagree that size, speed and power is everything for the top level.

    We are too focused on size rather than ability in Scotland. Size, speed and power are easy for coaches to notice, but there are only a very small number of couches who recognise size over ability over physical attributes. As you mention kids are noticed in their mid teens, often far too early as the playing field at that stage is not even at that, figuratively speaking, as some boys physically stand head and shoulders, literally speaking, above the rest.

    Guys like Brian O’Driscoll who has lit up the world rugby stage in recent years would have probably been looked over had he been Scottish, as he was not the biggest, fastest or strongest. Hard to believe now, but before the 2001 Lions tour of Australia he was considered to be “not big enough for international rugby.” It is not surprising that it was a Kiwi, Graham Henry the then Lions coach, who gave him his shot. New Zealanders dedicate a large amount of their ‘proper training’ time (and not just a warm up or extra summer training) to touch. New Zealand can never be criticised for lack of ability, and other few a few exceptions (i.e. Lomu) they are not massive (i.e. Carter, McCaw). Our vety own Tom Smith, not the biggest prop in the world but was certainly one of the best was recognised by Jim Telfer, a man who recognises ability over size.

    Ability can be hard to notice but touch levels the playing field, and shows the ones with the ability. Once the ability has been recognised, power and speed can be gained. Touch also improves, fitness, defence shape, communication, support, angles of running, awareness, most importantly, which is what our game is drastically missing in years, it’s fun and entertaining!

  • Comment number 10.

    Thanks for all your comments, much appreciated. Interesting point about the All Blacks not being that big, they play Scotland in a week or so and it will be fascinating stuff.


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