Our research has helped the Rugby Football Union (RFU) reshape the rules of rugby for under 12 year-olds.

Rugby Football Union

An Englishman, an Irishman and a Welshman have worked together for the good of English rugby.

It sounds like the start of a bad joke... but in this case the international trio brought about change that has benefited more than 85,000 rugby playing youngsters in England.

The partnership began when English Rugby Football Union (RFU) Player Development Manager, Gary Townsend contacted the University of Exeter for some help reshaping the rules of rugby for under 12 year-olds.

Enter Irishman Dr Mark Wilson who helped produce a report into how the rules of the game could be changed to provide a better playing experience and greater skills development for children.

Next on the scene was Welshman Dr Gethin Thomas, who successfully applied for the PhD studentship that was the catalyst for the change in the rules of mini rugby.

Despite this group of nationalities being the subject of many comedy routines the work of this threesome was far from a joke.

Together they developed and pilot tested a new set of rules that were so popular some were implemented just one year into the three year PhD, and half of English rugby clubs voluntarily began playing them a year before they were compulsory.

The RFU were delighted with the outcome of the project.

Gary said: “The project has been massively, massively successful.

“Without the research I think it would have been another six or seven years before there was an appetite to make these changes.”

Work started in 2009 when the RFU contacted the University after our sports research was recommended by RFU medical advisor, Mike England.

At this time children started playing structured rugby aged six. The RFU wanted some recommendations for rule changes based on expert knowledge of how children develop when playing sport.

Mark explained: “The RFU were losing young players and wanted to make rugby more attractive. We looked at how children play sport and the factors that might affect their ability to play certain types of game.”

The report examined physiological, psychological, and emotional factors, asking questions such as: Can children deal with lots of contact? Would skills learnt better fewer players on the pitch? Are structured rules and playing positions useful for young children?

But the report alone wasn’t enough to bring about a rule change. So when funding for a PhD student became available the RFU were ‘very excited’ to continue the work and increase its academic integrity.

Gary explained: “Gethin compared the new rules with the old rules to develop a game that encouraged players to stay in the game for longer and be more skilful when they are older.

Before the PhD youngsters played tag rugby until aged eight then they were introduced to elements such as tackling, rucks, mauls, scrums and lineouts.

“We thought this was nonsensical. We felt it should be graded,” said Mark.

Gary added: “For an eight year-old child it was just too daunting, and as a consequence they weren’t really mastering the core skills. We also felt the coaches had too much to do in a short time.”

The new rules, which are now compulsory in all English rugby clubs for players up to 10, introduce skills gradually with tackling introduced at nine and the non-competitive scrum at 10.

To bring about these significant changes Gethin’s research had to convince not just the rugby authorities but also coaches, parents and most of all the children.

The research was conducted with three pilot counties who played the new rules for a year and three counties who played the traditional rules. Gethin filmed and compared behaviours in games played with both sets of rules. He also interviewed elite coaches, rugby club coaches and children.

The results were staggering. When under sevens were playing the new rules there were 185 per cent more tries per game, 107 per cent more runs per player and 69 per cent more passes per player. In the under nine game Gethin found there were 85 per cent more tries, 126 per cent more passes and the ball was in play for 22 per cent longer.

Mark said: “The results show that the new rules provide more opportunities to practice basic skills. If you have more chance of doing these things you have more chance of putting yourself in a position to learn them.

“We are trying to develop better players by building up the key skills that every player needs then bringing in all the structure, which is part of rugby, a little bit later.”

It will be a few years before we see the impact of the new rules on players coming up through the ranks of English rugby but the Englishman, Irishman and Welshman certainly had a lot of fun reshaping the sport.

“I really enjoyed the project. I really enjoyed working with Gethin. He is a really good guy,” finished Gary.

“It was really great working with the RFU,” added Mark.

There was a lot of camaraderie and banter between the trio who clearly enjoyed working together. I won’t tell you what the threesome quipped when asked about working together because that isn’t printable!

Although Gary did mention something about how sweet it is that a Welshman and an Irishman have contributed to the continuing 'dominance' of English rugby...