2 Mar 2019

Decision to scrap junior rugby only hurts the kids

10:22 am on 2 March 2019

Parents routinely ruin kids' sport. Teachers spoil it too, for that matter.

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North Harbour rugby has decided to scrap junior rep rugby. Photo: 123rf.com

If schools and parents saw junior sport for what it was, North Harbour Rugby wouldn't be doing away with some of their junior representative teams.

New Zealand Rugby (NZR) wouldn't have then endorsed that by saying: "We do not see value in representative programmes at under-14 and below in relation to both identifying those players likely to go on to the elite level and encouraging the largest pool of players who may have the ability to play at the elite level to stay in the game," in a letter to provincial unions and Super Rugby franchises.

If NZR, one of the greatest facilitators of talent world sport has ever seen, is preaching participation, then why are there so many 'elite' user-pays academies for aspiring athletes?

Why is private one-on-one coaching so prevalent now?

Why are so many sidelines crammed with coaches and parents barking instructions at children and abuse at those stationed on the opposite touchline?

Why are kids being poached from one secondary school to another?

Surely anything bodies such as North Harbour or NZR can do to take the heat out children's sport, the better.

Instead, there are those who were angered by what North Harbour did. Those who - forgive me for having to repeat this tired, old phrase - reckoned it was political correctness gone mad.

Those who insisted there should be representative teams from as early as possible. That there had to be incentives and pathways for the more gifted and aspirational players.

Anyone who's had any involvement with junior sport knows people who think like that. Who take their sport very seriously, coach their own child wherever possible and insist on refereeing games too.

People who misguidedly think that manipulating these circumstances is actually going to help develop their son or daughter.

It's the prevalence of that kind of attitude that turns children and parents away from sport, rather than the lack of an under-12 rep side.

Let's go back a few months to the absurd situation of St Kentigern College and their rival Auckland first XVs.

Never mind what St Kent's did or didn't do. Forget whatever boycott the rest of the 1A competition teams threatened.

The facts are that players have always moved schools to play sport. Now, it appears, they're also moving towns.

And for whose benefit? Who's instigating and paying for that? Not the children.

All Blacks skipper Kieran Read will skip the side's test in Buenos Aires.

The All Blacks play a fun style of rugby - so too should children, Hamish Bidwell says. Photo: Photosport

We've come to a pretty sorry, frankly embarrassing, point with sport when these things are going on.

At its most pure, junior sport is a beautiful thing. Without wanting to get too corny, it's good for children.

In an increasingly sedentary world, a bit of aerobic activity should be encouraged.

Some will say sport also teaches a few life lessons. Actually, those need to come from parents and that's the point here.

You can't take winning and losing out of the equation. It doesn't matter if kids are four or five years-old, they know the score - at least roughly - and are certainly aware if they're in front or behind.

I have been lucky to make my living writing about sport. Huge chunks of my life have been spent around professional athletes and coaches and the common theme is how modest they are how unremarkable they find their circumstances.

Part of that's by design. If you talk games or tournaments up too much, they can overwhelm you. It's important too, as an athlete, not to say things that might motivate your opponent.

The All Blacks, for example, are trying to play the game in a childlike fashion. They want to promote enjoyment and mateship, to play on instinct and without fear of outcomes.

Their head coach, Steve Hansen, could hardly be more approachable and relaxed. Again, there's a method to it. If he's not taking himself too seriously and not making a big deal of things, then neither should the players and whoever else.

Sadly, that kind of perspective's been lost where it matters most.

There's nothing inherently wrong with junior representative sides and North Harbour Rugby should be able to field some.

The fact they can't is a sad indictment of the external pressure being heaped upon children by people who should be doing the opposite.

*Hamish Bidwell is a contributor to Radio New Zealand. He has previously worked at The Northern Advocate, Gisborne Herald, Hawke's Bay Today, The Press, The Dominion Post and Stuff.