No one would dispute the spirit of the RFU’s recently introduced rule requiring all members of a match day squad to participate in at least half of the available game time. Those marginal players standing on winter touchlines hoping for a few minutes at the end of a match whose result is already decided was never an edifying picture.
For much of school rugby, this has made little difference, merely formalising existing good practice. At the engagement levels of the game, the spirit of this rule is not new. The changing landscape of school rugby – under unprecedented threat for a cocktail of factors led by safety concerns – has meant that retaining a critical mass of willing players is a priority for all schools at all levels. There are fewer boys playing rugby in schools than at any stage in the last 100 years: the game needs all the support it can find. Disengaging players by denying them a share of game time is not in anyone’s interests.
However, like any rule, there are unintended consequences. One of them is the denial of flexibility to coaches to take decisions which may be in the best interests of pupils, the game or safety. Bound by inflexible rules, experienced teachers can no longer protect the fragile players from an unexpectedly robust encounter, or give the aspiring young player a taste of a bigger stage. In smaller schools, where the range of ability within a team is greatest, management of the quality of the game, and the experience of each pupil, is an art which does not conform to a simple mathematical formula.
School rugby is subtly different from the club game on Sunday mornings. Coaches are often more experienced, not being confined to the duration of the rugby career of their own children. They have, by definition, experience and qualifications in education and its pastoral implications. There will be rogue coaches, seeking inventive ways to game the system and circumvent the rule to win the game – but they are a minority.
By the age of 16, there are no schools where Rugby is compulsory. Boys choose to play it – or not. Those decisions are made primarily on the quality of the experience. Where this is good, pupils remain engaged with the game. It is market led, and schools cannot afford to operate the game in a way which loses players. Therefore a rule whose aim is engagement is less relevant. Also, the imbalance of standard between teams is accentuated by the half game rule. The best teams have deeper squads, and more good players. There is more difference in standard between the weakest players in the squad, than the strongest. The interchange of players makes the best teams even better, and results in more uncompetitive games. Teams with international players can not remove them from the game to even it up; even the best players must have their half share of the game.
There is a place for the half game rule. But its greatest impact is in the pre-maturation game, where players have different levels of maturity, size and experience. The rule can go some way to evening this, and maintaining involvement in the game for longer. But post maturation the situation is different. Players in the school environment are more experienced, size and speed have evened out more, and those less suited to the game have had the opportunity to leave it behind. The conscripts have been replaced by self-motivated volunteers. And the standard of competition has changed. The top schools rival academy teams in standard, but are bound by the same rules as the Under 12 club game.
The half game rule should be celebrated as an initiative of inclusivity. But its impact is at the engagement levels of the game. And, therefore, maybe it should only apply up to Under 15.