Sport Comment: Denying kids competitive sport will only put them off

John Inverdale
PARENTS of sporting children beware! The spectre of the ultimate oxymoron, non-competitive competition, long-lost in Labour days of yore, is set to return.

Surrey Rugby have just sent out invitations to their mini-festivals decreeing that their upcoming events will have no overall winners. If that is not enough, coaches are to tailor their teams to suit the strength of the opposition, and if one side is leading by too large a margin, then the good players will have to be removed and less talented ones sent on in their place.

And how’s this for a Draconian threat? If any single age group team doesn’t agree to this approach, then “their whole club will be asked to leave the festival and further action will be taken against their club”. The first public floggings for many decades in those most radical of locations, Dorking and Guildford, are clearly just a few weeks away.

While the motivation for this proposal is well meant, it flies fundamentally in the face of all that sport is about. The overall fall in participation numbers in team activities means that everything needs to be done to encourage young people to take up sport and maintain an interest in it. Rugby has an issue in that not every 10-year-old is the same size, and some are already potential bruisers while others are developing a slightly yellow streak. Player safety is paramount and getting beaten up physically, and on the scoreboard, is unlikely to sustain their involvement in the sport.

But no winners and losers? In New Zealand, for example, junior rugby is organised according to size and weight, not age, which ensures that the late developers are not discouraged from carrying on playing, and by the time they get to 18, things should have evened themselves out. Is it beyond the wit of rugby in this country to explore that possibility rather than deciding that taking part is all that matters?

Many hugely competitive young sportsmen and women who attend schools that have a “winning” ethos are very quickly going to decide that this sanitised version of the game is not for them.

Surrey Rugby has inadvertently reopened a can of worms that most thought had long since passed its sell-by date. Some senior clubs have already threatened to withdraw from the competitions. Because they know, rightly, that boys and girls just wanna have fun. But they want to have the chance to win too.