Junior league debates weighty issue

JAKE GALLAGHER

Chances are you’ve seen the video: a nine-year-old rugby league player estimated at 80kg lumbering unimpeded through a team of players half his size.

Ayden with same-aged teammate 1

Ayden Byrnes (pictured right) with teammates at JRL North Coast Representative Carnival. Photo: Supplied

The viral footage shows the mini-mountain scoring at will, his smaller opponents powerless to stop him.

It’s not an isolated incident, and calls for authorities to level the playing field has led the New South Wales Rugby League (NSWRL) to initiate weight-based competitions for juniors during the summer.  

Speaking to the Sydney Morning Herald, NSWRL football general manager BJ Mather said the unevenness of competition was a contributing factor to children turning away from the game.

They have introduced 21 weight-based competitions to 10-12 year olds across Sydney last summer, hoping to quell those concerns.

The new measures have the backing from Sydney league identities such as Russell Crowe and Penrith Panthers halfback Nathan Cleary. But support stops at the Tweed.

North of the border, protecting average-sized junior players from larger opponents is considered unnecessary. 

Participation in Queensland is rising: from 2016 to 2017, JRL participation increased slightly from 60,794 to 60,857, including a 21 per cent increase in female participation.

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The safety of young players is a priority, but most people at the grassroots level think this isn’t threatened by asking players to line up against larger competitors.

The consensus seems to be putting the onus on coaches to teach children proper techniques to minimise the chance of injury in a contact sport.

“That’s what tackling technique is all about; it doesn’t matter how big you are,” said Thomas Byrnes, a former JRL coach whose son, Ayden, 12, is the smallest player on his team.

“Teaching them the technique to tackle, teaching them to catch and pass is all about coaching! If there’s any whinging coming from coaches saying there should be weight for age (competitions), it’s because they’re not teaching the proper techniques to protect the kids.”

Ayden & Thomas

Thomas Byrnes with son Ayden. Photo: Supplied

Being smaller than most hasn’t deterred Ayden.

“It doesn’t matter if kids are bigger than me, I still want to go in there,” the plucky hooker said.

Typically the smallest player on the field since he joined the under sevens, Ayden has made countless representative teams in multiple sports.

His dream is to play in the NRL.

“(Overcoming size advantage) is all a part of the game,” he said. “You just have to learn how to tackle and learn how to run.”

Wayne Gibbs is another former coach on the Gold Coast. He has three sons who played league and believes the weight for age idea is “ridiculous”.

“You see one or two videos on the internet of kids running through teams and they’re saying we’ve got to do this and that, but are you going to drop kids like Ayden down to a lower grade because of the weight he’s running?” Mr Gibbs asked.

“And the biggest kid on his team who’s running double the weight, if not more – he wouldn’t make it in a higher grade. Weight-wise he’d probably be in the under 14’s but his mentality just isn’t!”

Ayden Tackling Larger Opponent

Ayden Byrnes (pictured in pink bib) tackling much larger opponent at North Coast carnival. Photo: Supplied

The NRL have attempted to elevate the size and safety debate by changing the rules in recent years for JRL through their ‘Safe Play’ initiative.

They sought to minimise the discrepancy between sizes and the dominance of abnormally larger players by changing fundamental rules.

This includes defenders standing five-metres back rather than 10 metres to lessen their run-up, and a tap restart instead of a kick-off for the same reason.

Most accept that with contact sports, there will always be an element of injury risk associated with it, but there is no way to completely eliminate it.

“We love Rugby League BECAUSE it’s a contact sport,” Mr Byrnes explained.

“They’ve changed the rules in Junior footy to protect kids from getting hurt, but it’s still a contact sport, injuries can happen. The onus is on the coaching to minimise it by teaching kids the proper technique.”

“You can try and make it as safe as possible, but at the end of the day, rugby league is still a contact sport.”

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Ayden Byrnes running through the defense for the Bilambil Jets. Photo: Supplied

 

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