Rugby clubs hire 12-year-olds in rush to professionalism

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Parents and sports teachers are alarmed that professional rugby clubs are approaching children as young as 12 with written contracts.

Swept along by the new pressures of the professional game, clubs are trying to spot the pre-pubescent boys who will grow up to scrum down like Brian Moore or tackle the next Jonah Lomu.

Schoolboys are being offered free kit, medical insurance, and promised sponsored university places - and payments of pounds 500 a game. Teachers believe youngsters are being tempted to jettison their studies and long-term careers.

The trend has resulted from the arrival of professionalism in rugby union along with the setting up of the new Super League in Rugby League.

The two codes are involved in a race to sign up new schoolboy talent. Children must sign contracts promising not to play without the permission of the clubs.

Senior rugby players warned last night that salaries in the game were only a fraction of those paid to top soccer players and could not provide long-term financial security.

Richard Moon, secretary of the Rugby Union Players' Association(Rupa), said: "We have been approached by quite a few parents and schoolteachers. In some cases the clubs have been offering the entire school 15 incentives to join. Clubs are targeting them at a young age so that they don't slip out of their grasp, but schoolchildren are potentially so vulnerable and they may see stars in their eyes and follow that path to the exclusion of all else."

Rupa has shared its fears about schoolboy contracts with the Rugby Football Union, based at Twickenham, where England begin their international season against Italy today.

David Rose, the RFU's youth development officer for the North Midlands, is also concerned. He said: "Clubs are saying to youngsters: `We want you to sign for two or three years and you cannot play any other rugby without our permission.'

"Many parents are very concerned, but some dads, who are keen for their sons to progress, could be taken in by all the promises."

Youngsters have traditionally been encouraged to learn the rudiments of the game in mini-rugby and progress through school teams to a university fifteen or a local amateur club side. Only then would the major clubs take interest.

In rugby league, the setting up of a new Super League has upped the stakes in signing schools talent. Bill Chard, secretary of the Rugby League Professional Players' Association, said 12-year-olds were now being signed up to major clubs. "If a schoolboy is not signed by the age of 14 they might see themselves as a failure and lose interest in the game," he said.