We’re a quarter of the way through season and already it’s been a very promising year for our U8s.
Numbers are good, and at 29 players we have the biggest U8 squad our club’s ever had.
This presents challenges in terms of getting all the players involved in games, but by being organised we’re able to ensure that, come match day, all of them get a fair amount of time on-pitch and everyone gets a chance to run with the ball. In training we try and maximise this with small-sided games on reduced pitches, and we split up all the ‘best’ players between the teams so that there’s a mix of ability in each – then we ensure that these more skilful players don’t hog all the play. It’s not perfect, but we’re at least giving all the players the opportunity to develop their skills in a fun and enjoyable environment.
So far, so idyllic!! You would be forgiven for thinking that everything in our garden is rosy, but alas nothing is perfect and despite all of the above, I have a gripe. In fact, it’s a perennial gripe, one that I’ve noticed has become more of a problem at this level of rugby in the 6 years since I last coached an U8 team. And the gripe is this: we have a set of modified Laws for this form of the game, to provide a structured yet simplified framework for the kids to display their skills on; yet far too many coaches seem to regard a lot of these rules as inconvenient or optional. This creates points of tension and contention whenever we play a match against another club and – as my son has indicated to me – frustrates the hell out of my players when they feel the opposition has been allowed to cheat throughout the game.
There are a number of possible responses to this.
Response number 1. I relax my refereeing of the game and allow/encourage my players to infringe in the same way as other teams. This would allow them a level playing field to complete on, but it goes against the grain for me to tell my players it’s OK to cheat if it helps you win. I realise that as open-age players they’ll be expected to ‘play the ref’ and to be a bit smart and streetwise about infringing to slow down the opposition. However, I feel that when you’re taking players new to the game and moulding them into rugby players for the future, you should make every effort to reinforce respect for all facets of the game including the Laws – and for me that means serial infringers shouldn’t be allowed to prosper.
Response number 2. I just chill out and ignore it – different refs interpret the Laws differently, my players have to learn to accept this, and as a coach I have to set the example for them to follow. Any frustration I feel needs to be hidden and I ought to focus on what my players can do to outflank the opposition even if the ref is letting them infringe. I would agree with all of that – except for the fact that my players deserve better, and when they know that the ref is getting it wrong, I’m the one they ask why. Somehow, ‘never mind the ref, look at your own performance’ seems a little too harsh a message to give to a 7-year-old. In any case, it’s not as if the Laws for U8 rugby are especially complicated or difficult to referee correctly, so surely it’s not too much to ask that a ref be more than just vaguely competent?
Response number 3. I approach the ref in question, say at half-time, and request clarification on why infringements are or aren’t being dealt with. For example, to ask ‘I notice you’re not pinging them for handing-off sir, does that mean our players can do it too?’ However, this is fraught with difficulty. Some refs will take your oblique point and will clamp down on the relevant offence for the rest of the game, and will be happy that you’ve brought it to their attention. This is a definite win. However, other refs will take your intervention as a personal criticism and a rather tetchy exchange then ensues in which no-one emerges the winner.
I had one of these at a well-known festival in the south of England in April, in which a neutral ref was great at pinging my players for not passing within 3 steps after being tagged, but terrible at penalising the opposition for shoulder-barging my players out of the way. At half time I politely requested that he stop them from doing it; he very shirtily replied that he was the ref and I didn’t have the right to tell him how to ref the game and he hadn’t seen the offence in question. Not a successful outcome then, and one which probably left each of us looking at the other and thinking “Self-righteous prick!”
Response number 4. Never to allow anyone but me to ref our games – just not practical I’m afraid, and in some cases not necessary as a number of refs are every bit as good as me or nearly so!
No, the only solution that is really acceptable is to get all coaches at our age group to referee using all the modified Laws, rather than ignoring certain ones to give their team an advantage.
It’s the only way to ensure a level playing field for both teams in a match.
‘Local variations’ can mean that in some cases your team is asked to play a vastly different set of rules than they are used to. A few years ago, our TAG age groups toured the North East and on starting their first match at their festival on the Sunday, were surprised to find a ‘double-tag’ rule in operation whereby ripping off both an opponent’s tags at once, gave you an immediate turnover. All the Northumbrian teams were aware of the rule, but it took our players some time to adapt. Not all differences are as pronounced, but it is true to say that every time we play a match, the Laws used are slightly different from the previous game.
For youngsters learning the game and the skills to play it, this kind of inconsistency needs to be stamped out. I meet coaches who justify a lax approach to refereeing mini rugby on the grounds that ‘They’re only kids’ (i.e. the poor little cherubs shouldn’t be burdened with being expected to follow the rules of the game).
So why do you think the Laws are there? The fact is, the simplified Laws for TAG rugby are designed for kids to be able to follow. Yes, it might be difficult and onerous to get it across, but with time and persistence, it’s definitely achievable. And once the habit is formed, it gets easier to help the players adapt to the Laws as they change with the different stages along the Age Grade pathway.
It might be that CBs and RDOs need to give some thought to mini rugby refereeing as part of a coach’s skill set so that we get more competent refs working with the youngest players, then match day will stop being a lottery based on what rules the home side thinks should apply.