It's the first weekend of the new mini-rugby league season and Rosslyn Park's juniors, aged five to 12, are getting their first feel of a rugby ball since April. The play is tentative - for some of the youngest players it is their first-ever go at rugby - but every now and again a ball flashes down a line of players and a speedy winger dashes down the touch line and dives to score a try. Applause ripples out from the proud parents in the stands.
Mini-rugby has grown massively in popularity over the last decade and is now played at hundreds of clubs up and down the country - the Rugby Football Union (RFU), which organises the sport in Britain, estimates that there are now four times as many clubs as there were 10 years ago, playing from September to April. Teams of boys or girls are divided into age groups starting at under-seven-year-olds up to under-12-year-olds; after the age of 12, youngsters graduate to the grown-up game.
"We estimate that there are probably 8,000 mini-rugby teams in Britain," says Alan Black, RFU promotions officer, "The single biggest reason for its growth in popularity has been the higher profile of rugby at the national level. When events such as the 1995 World Cup are shown on television, and the teams do well, it puts rugby into the eyes of youngsters who will want to emulate the stars."
The rules of mini-rugby are broken down into different age groups. The youngest players make two-handed "touch" tackles and can pass the ball forwards or backwards. The under-nine-year-old age group can start proper tackling, and must pass the ball backwards only. The under-10s are introduced to kicking the ball. Technical skills such as line-outs and scrums are brought in later. The size of the pitch also increases with age; from 20m by 30m for under-sevens to 43m by 59m for under-12s.
"The point is to have a gradual introduction," says Black, "You can't have seven-year-olds playing the same game as Will Carling - it's far too complicated."
Most mini-rugby teams are organised by local rugby clubs, with senior sides playing in national leagues. Increasingly, following the advent of professional rugby union, clubs look to their mini-rugby sides as a vital source of home-grown talent, since no expensive transfer fees need be paid.
There is, however, some controversy about this because a few major clubs, including Harlequins and Saracens, have not developed well-organised mini- rugby structures, preferring to recruit players from other clubs at age 19 or so when their potential is more evident. Smaller clubs feel angry that players are being "pinched".
Hundreds of mini-rugby tournaments are organised throughout the season, but there is not a national knock-out competition. Most counties have an annual tournament Rosslyn Park plays in the Surrey Cup. Mini-rugby organisers tend to be wary of entering teams in too many competitions. Bob Fisher, in charge of Rosslyn Park's mini-rugby squads, says: "We don't believe in the ethos of `win at at costs'. We're not trying to head-bang kids into becoming tough players. A few tournaments are good because kids enjoy them and they get medals and certificates. What we try to avoid is building up such a competitive edge that kids - and parents - become upset when a team loses. And we teach kids to obey all the rules; we stamp down on anyone who tries to cheat by throwing in little niggles in scrums. There are rarely injuries - the worst is usually a twisted ankle."
At most state schools rugby is not taught until children are 11 years old, which means that mini-rugby at clubs may be their first taste of the game. Private schools tend to start earlier - usually at around nine years old. "If it weren't for mini-rugby at club level, many kids would never get a chance to learn the game," says the RFU's Black, "We are having to fill a void left by the deterioration of rugby in state schools."
So what do youngsters themselves have to say about mini-rugby? At Rosslyn Park, David Miller, aged eight, said: "It's taught very well - you don't spend ages learning complicated rules till you're older. We have lots of mini-games amongst ourselves. This year, we're just learning to tackle for the first time, which is great fun." His friend Joseph Crehan, also aged eight, agreed: "It's brilliant. We won four tournaments last year and I scored a lot of tries. My favourite player is Jeremy Guscott and my dream is to play for England one day."
Joseph's father, Dominic Crehan - standing dutifully at the touch line - said: "It's not just fun for the kids. Parents like me love to watch their games and several of us like to go for a pint together after the kids have been playing. It's a very sociable sport and I've made some good friends."
At this point he broke off, as son Joseph dashed along the wing and scored a try. "Well done, Joseph!" he boomed. "Nice try. That's the stuff. Keep it up, son. You're doing great ..."
Mini-rugby for girls
Girls play alongside boys until the age of 12. After then, many clubs have their own girls' teams, although most drop out at 12 to play netball and hockey. Girls often develop faster than boys, so are at no disadvantage in terms of size when it comes to tackling and scrums.
Increasing numbers of girls are getting involved in mini-rugby and there is now a well-developed national women's league with two divisions for those who want to take the game further; Richmond, Saracens, Wasps, Cardiff and Leeds all have squads. Most girls who progress to the highest level usually do so by playing for a school team - more common among private schools - and then continuing the game at university.
Rosslyn Park has just started its first women's side. Bob Fisher, who organises the mini-rugby teams, said: "I've found that playing rugby is a way of building up confidence in girls. By playing rugby with boys they learn to feel that they should be included in everything. It's very important that they get that feeling of being involved.
"It's much rarer for girls from state schools to start playing mini-rugby. Not only is rugby not played in most state schools up to the age of 11, but they have the traditional pressures to get involved with `girly' things such as ballet. It would be great if more girls could get involved; mini-rugby is nothing like the tough game you see at international matches on television."
Out of 150 players practising at Rosslyn Park on a typical Sunday, about a dozen are girls. Most get involved because their brothers are playing. Clare Douglas, aged eight, did not look at all out of place tackling boys her age in a practice game - several times, her interventions prevented probable tries being scored. She said: "I started playing along with my brother and enjoyed it a lot. Most of my friends don't play because they think it's a boys' game - they go swimming or play tennis instead. I don't find that being a girl is a disadvantage - I've scored lots of tries in tournaments that have helped to win games."
Hannah Fisher, aged 10, who plays in the Rosslyn Park under-10 team, added: "It's annoying that people think girls should only do ballet and stuff like that. Rugby is not that rough."
However, Hannah admitted that she will probably give up the sport at 12: "I think I'll probably stop because it might get a little bit harder to play alongside the boys."
David Starling, head of Rosslyn Park's youth teams aged 12-19, said, "We haven't got a girls team after mini-rugby stops at 12. Maybe it's something we could introduce in the future as a link to the women's team, but at the moment there just isn't enough interest, I'm afraid."
How to get involved
The best way to find out about your nearest mini-rugby league is to look up your Rugby Football Union regional office in the local telephone book, or call the RFU's national Youth Development Officer on 01484 866363 for details of clubs with mini-rugby teams in your area.
Most clubs require players to sign up and there is usually an annual registration fee of around pounds 30, which goes towards renting local authority pitches. This registration fee also usually covers medical insurance, in the unlikely event of serious injury.
Mini-rugby leagues tend to be on the constant look out for parent volunteers - vital for keeping up squads as well as ferrying children to game; contact your local club if you're interested in helping out.
The rules of mini-rugby are available from the RFU (0181-891 4141). Most of the rules - which set out what children should be taught at certain ages - are included in The Laws of the Game in a section called "The Continuum". There are also helpful guides to mini-rugby - with details of pitches for each age group, and a video, The Coaching Guide to Mini-Rugby.Reuse content