Rugby League's plan to tackle kids’ safety fears
JUNIOR rugby league players will be graded by size, age and maturity under a radical plan to stop them getting hurt by bigger opponents up to 60kg heavier.
The sweeping changes being trialled in junior league competitions across Australia are aimed at halting the drift of families to rival codes, with league bosses describing them as vital to the future of the game.
One scheme under serious consideration by the NRL gives parents an option to drop their child down a year so they get more involvement in games and increase their enjoyment.
And The Saturday Telegraph has learned that league bosses are also looking closely at New Zealand's format, which gives young players within an age group a choice of joining an "open" competition for all shapes and sizes or one that is weight-restricted.
Australian Rugby League Commission chairman Peter Beattie said "getting participation and recruitment right" was crucial. "We are working on a structure to cater for variances in physical and emotional development … our future depends on its success," he said.
While overall participation is steady at around 171,000 registrations, boys' rugby league in the 13-17 year range in metropolitan Sydney is down. And Mr Beattie has challenged the code to pick up more junior players from outside traditional cultures, particularly Asian-Australian kids.
Rugby union was the first contact sport in Australia to introduce height and weight grading for junior players this year. Its Size for Age policy ensures players aged 10-15 who fall outside a certain height and weight range are independently assessed to determine which age group they should play in.
NRL officials have denied league is struggling to attract more players, claiming junior participation rates in the six to 12 age group are healthy. But general manager of national participation and development Luke Ellis has admitted the game faces a challenge to increase male numbers, particularly across the teenage years.
Rabbitohs owner Russell Crowe is leading a charge to make the game safer for young players, calling for all junior competitions to switch to weight instead of age. He said earlier this year he had seen 11-year-olds break bones and suffer concussion after having their heads "slammed and battered".
"If rugby league doesn't do something quick to reassure parents that we put the welfare of the kids who want to play the game as our priority, then the greatest game of all will wither at its roots," Crowe said.
"One game I watched, the assumed difference between the smallest on one team and the largest on the other was pushing 60kg. These are kids. It's unsafe and patently unfair."
A trial scheme in the Riverina gave parents the option for children born in the second half of the year to play in the year group below their age. It has been a huge success, with kids reporting they get more opportunities, improving their confidence and competence.
When the NSW Rugby League trialled weight for age last year it limited under-10 players to 36kg and under-12 players to 47kg. Many parents are demanding this is rolled out in grading youngsters.
"My son suffered broken bones three years running between ages 12-14 while playing rugby, directly as a result of being tackled my a much larger opposition player," one said.
Weight restrictions for juniors are among the options being investigated in the NRL's Player Development Framework for the future. Feedback from families revealed concerns about weight and size and those issues would be addressed, the NRL said.
Parents at a rugby league clinic in Sydney's west welcomed the debate. "If you're being trained right, the tiniest kid can get my kid down in a heartbeat," mother Kylie Tatafu said. "My kid is one of the bigger kids on the field … (but) is a really gentle, considerate kid - he's a gentle giant."
And mum of three keen young footballers Suzanne Dib said: "I have … a bigger nine-year-old and sometimes it works in his favour," she said. "However, socially it turns against them because mentally they're not ready to play with a 12-year-old. There is good and bad in it."