– By Touchline.
Over the past decade, the number of Under 13 grade children playing Rugby Union in the Wellington region has halved. In 2009, the region boasted 31 Under 13 teams, of which 21 were weight-restricted. 10 years later, all of the 21 weight-restricted teams have disappeared, to be replaced by only six new open-weight teams.
The “law of unintended consequences” was popularised by economist Sam Peltzman in 1975. Peltzman achieved recognition for what is now known as the “Peltzman Effect”, by demonstrating that sometimes the outcome you get from enforcing a change, is the opposite of what you expect to see.
In 2012, it was decided to remove weight-restricted teams from the Under 13 age-group, for the 2013 season onward. The rationale was that “the previous U13 Open grade was no longer viable with only 3 to 4 teams participating”. It was expected that the new strategy would increase player numbers in the grade. The opposite has occurred.
Touchline, while noting recent media reports which suggest that a focus on representative teams (notably in the Northern Region) is a factor behind falling participation in this age-group, can’t help but wonder if a big part of falling participation is also due to young teenagers just wanting to play a “fair game”, in which they feel physically safe and not at risk of serious injury. No doubt parents feel the same way.
Rugby Union is a game (particularly at the elite level) where “size matters”, however for the game to be fun for children and teenagers as a contact sport, many of the hallmarks of the professional game, where “big-hits” are celebrated as prowess, in Touchline’s opinion, need to be left off-the-field completely.
The statistics show that Wellington’s city-based Clubs carry most of the 10-year decrease, with the same number of open-weight teams in 2018 as 2009, with no increase in teams arising from the elimination of the eight restricted-weight sides.
Clubs in the Hutt region have gained two new open-weight teams in exchange for the loss of eight restricted-weight teams, while the Western Bays region is least affected, having gained four open-weight sides despite losing five weight-restricted teams.
The strange conundrum is that once players reach secondary-school, weight-restricted grades are re-introduced by the Wellington Secondary School Rugby Union as a means of encouraging participation.
It seems very odd to Touchline that at the very age when children are transitioning from intermediate to secondary school, that so many are being discouraged from playing the game, choosing to opt-out, as the statistics quite clearly show. The current alignment between junior club rugby and secondary school rugby perhaps requires urgent review.
Touchline understands that New Zealand Rugby is well aware of the factors behind declining participation by children and is looking to address a broad range of factors, including those illustrated by the Under 13 grade statistics in Wellington. Whatever strategies emerge and are implemented, it’s hoped that the “Peltzman Effect” is avoided.