Radical new rules for junior league players
RUGBY league bosses will introduce one of the most radical shake-ups in the sport's 110-year history with Queensland kids to trial a no-premierships and no-tackle program in a bid to grow the sport.
News Queensland can reveal southeast Queensland will be a testing ground next year for a grassroots strategy that will stop many rugby league juniors tackling and playing grand finals.
Data obtained shows a staggering 40,000 juniors nationally - out of 140,000 - quit rugby league last year, mostly due to a "negative experience".
From next season, Queensland Rugby League competitions in Brisbane, Ipswich and the Gold Coast will see the under-6s outlawed from tackling, instead playing a non-contact version called Tag League.
In another unprecedented move, junior footy players from ages 6-12 will not play for competition points or premierships next season.
Grand finals will apply only to the under-13s and older age groups as the code's most powerful decision-makers look to bring fun back to grassroots rugby league and stop thousands of children quitting the sport.
The ARL Commission is presiding over a code-wide strategy, formalised in a document called the Player Development Framework, which will be road-tested on Queensland soil next year.
Under the trial, every six-year-old registered league junior in the southeast Queensland region will play Tag League.
They will spend 12 months learning to tackle as part of the code's TackleSafe program before moving into the traditional contact form of the game in the under-7s.
The proposal has triggered outrage from some junior league parents but key QRL and NRL stakeholders believe the strategy is critical to regenerating the sport and boosting participation.
The New Zealand Rugby Union has had great success with its "Rippa Rugby" format devised in 2003, a developmental game of tag rugby played by six-year-olds and primary schools.
NRL strategy and projects chief James Hinchey says 18 months of research shows a "negative experience" is primarily driving families and kids away from the sport.
Research shows 25 per cent of junior league players quit the sport because of selection issues and on-field neglect.
Fifteen per cent of families have concerns with welfare.
"The danger aspect is not the major issue. Parents want their kids to have fun. It's time to give the game back to the kids," Mr Hinchey said.
"The New Zealand Rugby Union have been doing this for 15 years.
"They play tag rugby in the under-6s as part of their 'Small Blacks' program and the All Blacks are the most dominant sporting team on the planet.
"Next year will be a testing phase in southeast Queensland so we can measure how the new rules operate.
"A comprehensive report will go to the ARL Commission with a view to these strategies being implemented across the board in 2020.
"Sports around the world are heading in this direction."
Mr Hinchey scoffed at suggestions a tackle ban would ruin the sport.
"We aren't removing the tackle completely - we are actually prioritising it," he said.
"Our plan is for every six-year-old coming into the game to learn how to tackle safely. We will have accredited people teaching coaches and kids the TackleSafe program.
"As a game, we will be equipping kids with the knowledge, tools and confidence to tackle safely and be tackled and that enhances the experience for everyone."
The current calendar-age registration period, from January 1 to December 31, will also be expanded to an 18-month range.
That gives children born later in the year, between July and December, the opportunity to play in a younger age group to help their physical and emotional development.
The scrapping of grand finals before the teenage years is a dramatic step.
But NRL and QRL bosses are alarmed at stories of clubs and coaches attempting to recruit star players as young as 10 in the pursuit of winning.
"It's ridiculous," Mr Hinchey said. "If you judge success solely on premierships, only one team has a good season and that's not the experience we want for young kids.
"Game scores will be kept in the under-6s through to the under-12s, but there will be no season points tables and no grand finals.
"The environment has become excessively competitive. It's time to take pressure off the kids, particularly from adults, and just let them have fun."
Valleys Junior League president Danny Walker said he was not sure how the changes would impact the sport, but hoped the no-tackle rule would entice more parents to sign their children up.
"I think it's a positive change in trying to engage those parents who are apprehensive about their kids playing contact sport," he said.
"Any change which improves participation in kids playing sport is a good thing for the game."
CHANGING THE GAME
• 40,000 junior players quit rugby league every year, mostly due to a "negative experience".
• Competitions in Brisbane, Ipswich and Gold Coast to next year trial TackleSafe program.
• Under-6s banned from tackling, instead playing non-contact Tag League.
• Six-year-olds and coaches to be educated on tackling techniques before starting tackling at age seven.
• No competition points and no grand finals for ages of 6-12 in southeast Queensland leagues next season.
• No finals series until under-15s. #1 v #2 teams in under-13s and 14s to contest a "grand final" dubbed Gala Day.
• Registration window extended from 12 to 18 months to aid kids born later in the year to play in younger divisions to help physical and emotional development.