At the age of 16, life opens up for young people. They have reached the age of consent, can continue to study or get a job, ride a moped and gain a National Insurance number. But can they continue to play, enjoy and improve at rugby? Former Pontypridd wing Owen Robins, now coaching a junior section within the club structure, believes there are challenges to be overcome.
Welsh Rugby – The Transition Year
Welsh rugby is a union of WRU Clubs. The mini and junior sections (M&J) of our WRU clubs are a critical pathway to the success of Welsh rugby and are increasingly the lifeblood and heart of our clubs. These M&J sections are the real academy structures of Welsh rugby.
As a parent and backs coach with players from the ages six to 16, I have lived through and seen many challenges – and more than a few issues – over the years as both parents and children get to know and develop with the game.
For many, both parents and children, the enjoyment and release rugby can create is priceless. Rugby, and our rugby clubs, teach skills for life and help grow the communities we live in.
In many ways Welsh rugby clubs are the very fabric of our communities – the bond that keeps us together.
The transition year is age 16 or Year 11 in school. At age 16, our kids turn into young adults and start making decisions that will dictate the rest of their lives.
It is a crucial time for them and a crucial time for our rugby clubs. I will focus on rugby and leave others to debate if 16 is the right age for other life decisions such as a vote.
As a coach, this year has been the most difficult of the last ten years – from age six to 16.
Just when Welsh rugby needs the most stable and most secure transition year, we have the exact opposite.
I will list the Transition challenges in order of difficulty. Many are easy to resolve if our Union wants to.
1) Regional Age Grade (RAG) rugby
The impact on M&J U16 clubs is the No.1 problem. The impact causes break-up and disruption to training and a reduced amount of games.
If your club is not impacted for their Sunday fixture the team you are playing will be. No coach will ever hold back players and it is a huge honour for the club to have players involved in representative rugby.
The impact, however, needs to be sorted as this is such an important transition year for our players and rugby clubs.
For me, this must be led by WRU – they must widen the remit and direction of the RAG management to include development of all players, with the key deliverables to be integration and support of WRU U16 clubs.
This should involve RAG coaches watching and supporting U16 games, attending training sessions of all U16 clubs, and an integrated agreement of fixtures and training programmes.
RAG management should also highlight the club a player is linked to and promote this.
2) U16 football
Boys have choices in life and sport. Football and rugby can work together for the benefit of all.
Having both U16 football and U16 rugby at the same time on a Sunday is almost beyond belief.
But welcome to U16 sport in the Rhymney and Mid-District Valleys this year. How Sport Wales allowed this is just so hard to understand. Play U16 football on a Saturday and the problem goes away.
The weather impacts all age groups but due to the importance of this transition year, I would propose regular monthly RAG tournaments on the best 3G/4G surfaces – paid for and run by the WRU.
4) Youth rugby
At age 16, boys can play youth rugby for their clubs. The physicality and age jump can be very daunting for many boys and we must all work harder and find solutions to help the transition run as best we can.
Joint U16 /U17 games, involving youth, and joint training sessions are a good way forward.
Maybe, more involvement from RAG coaches at youth level would be another way of improving the support and creating a better bond with the clubs.
5) Weekend jobs & social
These are always going to be challenges as work and social distractions create a drop off.
But tickets to RAG and Pro rugby and Wales games would help keep the link with clubs.
Regular contact is another way of showing interest and that we care. A sporting tour for this age group is also a fantastic idea and from my own experience this year it should be a key target for this age group.
It keeps the bond and identity that is so important as the boys move into youth.
These are stressful times as GCSE mock and exams land. There is no easy answer to this apart from the support and understanding we can all give. Maybe revision sessions as a team is one way to help and keep the bond.
Hopefully, this blog will create a bit of thought and debate about the way forward.
Welsh rugby has to solve the transition year question to enable a vibrant and viable future for our great game.