Mini Rugby, vital skills.

Why rugby’s power has shifted to the North

LIAM BOTHAM’S IRC RUGBY COLUMN, FRIDAYS

In looking at tomorrow’s big game between the Springboks and the All Blacks I am wondering how big the divide is between Northern and Southern Hemisphere rugby, and if there is one at all?

Years ago there existed no doubt – South was way better, more advanced than North in most aspects of the game. Perhaps England got a look in, here and there. But that divide started shrinking in the mid-2000s and over the last five years we’ve seen a balancing of the scales.

I’d venture to say that rugby in the Northern Hemisphere has the edge today. Ireland has emerged as “the team to beat” wherever they play and France is popularly considered the new rugby powerhouse, having won the Six Nations and being priced up favourites for the World Cup.

There are some reasons for the strength of the North and the first is a club-rugby system that draws the world’s best players to Europe with massive financial packages, and integrate them into clubs who grow and become better, like we’ve seen in the English Premiership and the French Pro-14. Single or pairs of clubs used to be dominant but the gap between them has also notably diminished to point where we see results reversed within weeks, late comebacks within matches and the resurgence of former top teams.

Let’s face it, money talks, especially in this game where careers are short and players fall out of favour at their home clubs. The Southern Hemisphere countries are not able to match the salaries offered in the North (exchange rates have plenty to do with this), and any player who turns down big cash offers is either already wealthy, fiercely patriotic or simply stupid.

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Rugby is a religion in New Zealand, we know, and we’ve seen some excellent youngsters coming from the formerly disadvantaged groups in South Africa, but in the UK our mini-rugby programmes have been laying the basic foundations for greater progress of young players at school, into academies and clubs, and I’d say we’re ahead of the South in this respect, too.

Mini rugby, also known as New Image Rugby, is a form of rugby union designed to introduce the sport to children. It uses a smaller ball and pitch than standard rugby, and has eight to ten players a side. It has been going in England since the 1970s, now also in Ireland, Wales and Scotland, and has become hugely popular.

There are mini-clubs attached to most of the bigger clubs – in fact they’ve become the financial backbone of some. Vital skills are taught early, for example learning to catch the ball with your hands instead of your chest which is needed in the fast, modern game. I help out with a bit of coaching at my local club Holywood in Belfast, my 5-year-old and 7-year-olds play here, and it’s fascinating to see weekend turnouts of families supporting their young kids.

The end result is that players of more advanced skills reach club level and, eventually, find their way into National squads. So, at this juncture, when the balance of power appears to be tilting the other way, I look forward even more to the 2023 Rugby World Cup to see if the shift can be confirmed!

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SPEARHEADING CLASS ACTION: Ryan Jones, diagnosed with early onset dementia. (BBC)

Almost 200 ex-players, including former Wales internationals Ryan Jones and Alix Popham, have started legal proceedings against rugby’s governing bodies over alleged negligence leading to their diagnoses of early onset dementia, probable CTE and other permanent injuries as the result of brain damage. This latest step paves the way for what is the biggest class action of its kind outside of the US to head to court.

When the pre-action claim was filed in 2020, no settlements were reached, but it is likely that negotiations will likely still be going on behind closed doors in terms of potentially reaching a settlement – even if the matter is now in the hands of the court.

Walesonline quoted Dispute Resolution Attorney Jonathan Compton as saying, “In a relatively unique case such as this where the claimant and defendant each have a similar interest in improving the viability of the game long-term, there is an added flexibility in settling matters out of, rather than in, the courtoom.”

Compton suggests that this law suit will damage long-term progress and to be honest, I agree with him. While I’d like to see more data in this matter, I look at former players like Doddie Weir, whose My Name’s Doddie project has achieved notable progress since its establishment about five years ago. For example, they launched a petition which led to a debate in the Scottish parliament and helped to sway the government to provide dedicated funding for research into Motor Neuron Disease (MND).

Doddie, Rob Burrows, Gordon Aikman and several others have done much to bring MND to the forefront and, to my mind, the players trying to sue rugby’s authorities for money should rather be focusing on sharing their ordeals and helping to secure future research and advances into preventing these injuries from occurring, rather than taking money from what is not a billion-dollar industry.

Compton added: “From my own view, there’s a conversation to be had between the governing bodies and the injured players about how the game can move forward. They may need to alter the very nature of the game through new rules.

“My advice to the employer – or indeed World Rugby in this case – were I representing them would be to settle. Once you’re in the witness box and you’re giving evidence, you’re almost a passenger. There’s almost nothing anyone can do to help you. But at the settlement stage, you can suggest solutions and things like that.”

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Nigel Owens, who shared his views on rugby’s rules, refereeing, the TMO and such in this column back in April, re-stated his dissatisfaction with a number of current laws being implemented by World Rugby.

Owens highlighted four laws he’d like to see changed for benefit of everyone playing (and watching) the game, and they are:

1)  20-m Red Card Law: “Won’t help changing player behaviour”.

2)  The Goal-line dropout: “I’m not sure it has worked as planned. We still see plenty of pick-and-gos until teams get over, we still see plenty of mauls and the number of collisions hasn’t decreased.”

3)  Fewer Number Of Replacements: “It is a physical game and unless you change it beyond total recognition of what the sport is, you are going to have to accept that there is going to be a risk of injury.”

4)  No more crooked scrum feeds: “Everyone you speak to about it wants feeds to be straight. Everyone comments on it, and there is no excuse.”

I’d agree to all of that!

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The one thing we know about tomorrow’s Bok-All Black clash is how the Springboks will play – all power and driving forward with their big pack. That’s a style also employed by the Kiwi’s, though they have arguably more flair at the back. This makes for an interesting match, especially since I can’t recall the last time the All Blacks lost three in a row. The law of averages will favour New Zealand, not?

The Argentine Pumas, a force to be reckoned with now, building under Michael Cheika and playing at home, have a chance if toppling Australia. The Pumas have been threatening to show that they are perhaps third in the South or even better – not fourth best – and this is a good opportunity to advance fairly in the direction of their dreams.

Until next week. – IRC.

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