I have just had a very interesting and enjoyable weekend of rugby with my rugby club. For the first time in the history of the club our 1st XV have made it to the cup final of our region and on Sunday afternoon took to the field against opposition who sit in the league above ours. At the final whistle, we had beaten them 18-0 on their pitch (no neutral grounds in this one) and secured a brilliant result for the club.
So what has this to do with mini rugby?
Well, although I coach for the senior teams now, I started at the club as a dad of a then four-and-a-half year old (that was allowed back then). Not being able to just stand and watch I offered to help out, and at the end of the first season at the club, as the then Under 7’s coaches moved on with their players, I took over that age group and started my coaching from there. This Sunday, five of the players in the first XV, who wrote a new chapter for our club, were products of that age group, and a number of others on that team also worked their way through the age groups.
At the start of this season, our Colts numbered 30+ players – most of who have played from mini age groups at the club. As they hit 17 years of age, and with the sign off from the senior coaches (who watched them playing Colts rugby) and their parents, have been brought into the senior squads at the club. Every one of them has now played in either 1st or 2nd team games with the exception of my own son who only turned 17 last week. His job on Sunday was to take the kicking tee to the 10. He will be pushing for a place in the team soon enough.
So again, what does this say about mini rugby?
Well, my approach in the minis and all the youth age groups was to give players playing time; to build a squad with no “best players” as they all change and grow, or not, as the case may be. At every game I played every player (we don’t do leagues in our part of the world) and whilst we lost a fair few games my squad remained mates, all improved their individual skills and continued through youth age groups into Colts with excellent numbers. Whilst this was happening some of the bigger clubs who had mini section age groups of 40 or 50 started to pick A & B teams and started to pick teams to win week in – week out. The observation from a distance being that some players who trained at every session never got a start and in some cases never got a game for weeks. After a while these players drifted away from training, stopped turning out and sadly seemed to give up the game. These clubs went from 40 to 50 players in an age group to 30 or so as they tried to run two teams. This was then compounded by some of the B team players also wandering off as they were shunned by lads who should have been squad mates and coaches who should have been developing players to the point that they ran one team.
However, this isn’t the end of the decline – lads at 16/17 years of age have college, jobs and all the other distractions that come at that age, and sadly this too dents squad numbers, and we get to the point at the start of Colts rugby with these once mighty teams not being able to field a team at all. Roll this on to the numbers of new players joining their senior squads this year and they might have 4 or 5 compared to the 20+ we have welcomed.
Someone asked me on Sunday what my focus as coach for the 1sts was going to be now. It remains the same as it has always been – to develop the players to be better next week than they were last week. However, in amongst that is the understanding that every one of the players in our mini/youth squads should have the potential to play in our seniors squad, and they needs to be nurtured and given the opportunity to develop – something which will not happen if they don’t get played.
Somewhere in that Under 7 age group is your future club captain. Instilling the love of the game, the opportunity to develop and play the game is the single most important role a coach can have.