This video of Meaalofa Te'o demolishing his junior rugby league opponents in Canberra, Australia's capital city, has reignited the debate about whether junior rugby should be graded by the weight of the players (they do this already in New Zealand) or by age (like the rest of the world). The Doveton Steelers U-9 Team has become one of the most-watched teams in the world in recent days as this video has gone viral; the US Eagles’ website had 30 million hits after they posted it on their website.
It's Fine As It Is
Playing Devil’s Advocate – like Homer here in one of the great Simpsons scenes - some will argue that the kids will inevitably come up against much bigger players sooner or later, and therefore the sooner they get used to playing bigger kids the better. Furthermore, if you do go down the weight-grading route, at what age is it best to implement it? Around 16/17 when the majority have transitioned from children to adults (i.e. gone through puberty)?
This Is Daft
On the other side of the camp (and I suspect that this will be the majority) people will say there is no value either to Te’o himself, his teammates, or his opponents in him playing so dominantly against children half his size. Te’o will not develop the skills to excel later in life when he is no bigger than anyone else (i.e. sidestepping, using the ball to beat defenders, running at space, good footwork etc). Having said that he looks like a skillful ‘wee’ chap. But let’s face it, the path of least resistance (literally) for him is to run through or over the boys half his size. I would argue that for Te’o’s sake, he should be playing with boys his own size so that he can learn to play the game as it will be played when he’s an adult.
And for the poor boys that are half his size, they aren’t getting anything out of this either. I doubt any of them are being ‘toughened up’; on the contrary rugby is a game of confidence at that age and I suspect a lot of them will have theirs dented by being bodily thrown about by a comparative giant.
As for his teammates, what are they learning about the game apart from getting the ball to Te’o as fast you can…
Rugby Under Attack
More importantly there must be an increased risk of injury to the opposition. Even with perfect technique, a lot of those 8yr old boys will struggle to tackle Te’o. Being bumped off by an elbow or thrown backwards through the air will surely increase the risk of concussion. This is a timely conversation because rugby wants to portray itself as a less ‘violent’ sport that pays more attention to the risk of injury. It has come under attack from some quarters. The highest profile critic is probably Professor Allyson Pollock, an expert in Public Health Research & Policy at Queen Mary University of London. Pollock came to prominence when she spearheaded a group of doctors and medical professionals who wrote an open letter to Government and health officials urging them to ban tackling in schools rugby.
Whilst this scribe believes she goes too far, she does raise some valid concerns. No doubt her own experience of rugby (her son had three serious injuries playing schoolboy rugby) has prejudiced her against the game, but to a large extent she is missing the point. Of course rugby carries risk: The sport's governing body, World Rugby, responded by releasing the results of a survey that stated 92% of parents of children aged between 7-18 years old believed that the benefits of children playing sport outweighs the risks. This sums it up nicely for me and I fall definitively in to this camp. Yes there are risks, but boy are they worth it.
However that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t mitigate those risks as much as possible without completely sanitising the game.
What About Other Sports?
Boxing, an individual sport, places weight restrictions at each of its age grade levels, ensuring that fighters are given the opportunity to fight against someone of comparable size, strength and development.
American Football, which is comparable to Rugby in the physicality required and the need for players of a range of sizes depending on position, has also had weight restrictions in place for under age players for some time.
It therefore seems that an obvious and easy way to increase participation and enjoyment in rugby is weight-grading. It has been shown to work well in New Zealand, the undisputed epicentre of world rugby. Admittedly the issue is more common in NZ as a result of the large Polynesian demographic. The mean height of Pacific Island children in NZ is at about the 95th percentile from age 5 to about age 10-11. By weight grading their junior rugby they have reduced the mismatch risk.
Parents and players will definitely perceive the sport as less dangerous if they are going to play against players of their own size or weight.
I have to admit that I felt a pang of sadness when I watched this video. It doesn't feel right and I don't think there are any winners. Having said that, he's the only 9yr old that could feasibly buy a pair of Athlete Denim!