Joys of Age-Grade Coaching: Start of a New Season

rugby totsFive more sleeps! A new season starts on Sunday and for the first time in a few years I’m especially excited and enthusiastic at the prospect, so much so that I’m counting the days just as I hope my players will be. Five more sleeps… can hardly wait!

The reason for the extra excitement and anticipation is that this season, I have the under 9 squad. The players I’ve been nurturing for the past two years will be ditching their TAG belts in a formal handover ceremony, and starting contact rugby mostly for the first time.

It’s a significant stage in a player’s career and one that’s vitally important to manage correctly as a coach. Indeed, I consider it a privilege to be able to guide young players through an experience that some view with a certain amount of trepidation.

The right input from me and my colleagues at this stage can make all the difference, meaning players learn to love the rough and tumble side of the game and carry on that love through long-playing careers as adults.

One thing that’s going to help massively is the adoption of the New Rules of Play. Previously, the transition from U8 to U9 meant learning about rucks, mauls, scrums and line-outs in addition to tackling. This represented a massive learning curve and meant that only the very talented players, the ‘naturals’, were able to pick up all these skills adequately. Maybe 80% of your squad would be struggling with one or more aspects of the game, and those for whom most of it was a struggle would eventually give it up. With player retention being a vital objective for coaches, this made it far harder to achieve the right kind of success.

The New Rules have simplified the game, reducing to 7-a-side from 9 and stripping out everything bar the tackle for U9s (the rest is brought in progressively over the following three seasons so that by U13, the whole game is in place). All I need to worry about now is how to tackle and be tackled, and what to do afterwards. With the ruck and maul removed, the contest for possession also goes and the defending side has to allow the attackers to move the ball on from the tackle area. In fact, it’s not far removed from another form of rugby, very popular here in West Yorkshire, which places the focus on ball-handling skills and solid defence.

The counties along the M62 corridor were the last to adopt New Rules, I think out of a fear that we were switching to ‘rugby league-lite’ as one coach described it, and that as a result we would lose players to the 13-a-side game. I see it as more of an opportunity though; firstly, to focus on developing our players’ skills in manageable chunks, and also to attract players from rugby league who want to play rugby in winter as well as summer, and who won’t find the game so alien.

So that’s why I’m feeling so enthusiastic about the coming year. I’ve sent out my briefing e-mail for Sunday and already had three replies indicating that my players are also raring to go. The best of them read as follows:

“…see you on Sunday for the new season (Anna already has her kit laid out in preparation!).”

When your players are as excited about it as you are, that’s half the battle won already, and just one of the many joys of being an age grade rugby coach.

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