A social media storm erupted this week over video footage of an 11-year-old rugby player being told he could not play in the Sydney Spring 7s.
The post generated a huge number of comments and shares, with many upset by the treatment of the young man and his teammates.
The actions last Saturday and the subsequent post seemed to strike a rich vein of frustration with rugby in Australia, with many calling for heads to roll, inviting the child to play rugby league or head to play rugby in New Zealand.
So is size for age a beat-up? Rugby Australia introduced a new policy in 2018 which includes a range of heights and weights by age group and based on the clinical dataset – the dataset used by doctors and medical professionals – with a requirement for mandatory assessment at suitable combined height and weight thresholds.
The guidelines include the following levels for mandatory assessment of male players:
|Under 11||134 centimetres and 29 kilograms||164 centimetres and 65 kilograms|
|Under 12||140 centimetres and 32 kilograms||172 centimetres and 72 kilograms|
|Under 13||147 centimetres and 36 kilograms||179 centimetres and 79 kilograms|
|Under 14||153 centimetres and 40 kilograms||185 centimetres and 85 kilograms|
|Under 15||158 centimetres and 45 kilograms||188 centimetres and 91 kilograms|
According to a statement published by Sydney Junior Rugby Union, who administer the competition and were responsible for the child being removed from the game, the child was assessed and his family had been told he was ineligible to play under-11s rugby and had played the 2019 season in an older age group. This child was clearly well above the combined maximum height and weight for an 11-year-old player and the images shared on social media demonstrated this large size difference.
Supporters of the child suggest rugby is a game for all sizes and that this decision is about racism or wrapping kids in cotton wool. In an environment where the awareness and understanding of concussion and head injury has shifted substantially in recent years, all participants in contact sports need to understand the implications of mismatched collisions for a range of injuries, especially head injuries.
The ranges indicate that an under-11 child weighing 30 kilograms and standing at just 135 centimetres tall would be above the minimum thresholds and could take the field against a player over 30 kilos heavier and 29 centimetres taller. Because the mandatory assessment is triggered by both height and weight, if that child were 40 kilograms heavier and 28 centimetres taller, they would not receive a mandatory assessment and the smaller player is lining up against a much larger opponent.
The safety of all players is important and these policies are implemented for this purpose. We need all players of all sizes to be able to play rugby but to play in age groups suitable for their size.
The boy singled out on the weekend was a talented young man chosen in representative rugby. Not only is he tall and heavy for his age, but he is fast, talented and therefore has a big impact on a game. His assessment that he should play an older age group reinforces this view. He poses a risk to players his own age and this is why he was not allowed to play under-11s rugby.
Many reference New Zealand rugby, and yet similar size for age rules apply, including limits on weight or a need to wear special shorts and have limited game interaction. The child would have received a similar treatment over there. There is no perfect model.
I know many parents concerned about size for age who argue that height is not a fair measure and weight is the key measure. There is room for improvement with the policy and it is understood Sydney Junior Rugby Union are looking at changes in 2020. As my earlier example shows, a very heavy child under the height threshold can have a significant impact on a game.
There are a number of factors which impact views on size for age. Kids playing in higher graded rugby are more likely to have an impact which is compounded by unlimited interchanges in younger age groups. A team who do not breach the height threshold but have kids over the weight threshold could in theory rotate players on and off every five minutes, maximising impact.
It is open to question whether the policy and its implementation have been effective. It is open to question whether this child has been treated fairly, noting his parents were aware he was not to play under-11s rugby.
What is not in question is that size for age is a raging issue in junior rugby circles and is based on scientific data aimed at the safety of all kids playing rugby.
There are many kids who play down an age group as they are small for their age. This is to be applauded as it should mean kids playing against similarly sized children. It is also for these reasons that the maximum thresholds must be policed.
It should be seen as a badge of honour to play up an age. As a child I regularly played up an age group and was proud to do so. I find it hard to swallow that some seem to see this as a punishment.
We should expect policies to be explained and implemented effectively and we should applaud rugby administrators when this occurs. Until then, we should hold them to account as the stewards of our game.