LONDON As Stuart Lancaster makes his final Six Nations preparations, England's next generation of budding rugby internationals have been told that their competitions must have no winners and that if they are losing a match, the teams will have to be changed.
While England prepare at their usual base in Surrey, the county finds itself on the frontline of a philosophical battle about competitive matches in junior or "mini" rugby.
The Rugby Football Union (RFU) in conjunction with Surrey Rugby last week issued a new set of rules for tournaments for all age groups under-11 that left many parents and coaches initially thinking they were the victims of a spoof.
The key components are that tournaments will no longer have a winner, they will be round-robin only. Coaches must meet before each match to try to pick evenly matched teams and if any matches are proving too "one-sided" then coaches will be forced to "adjust" their teams at halftime to make them closer. Teams will no longer be streamed on ability but will play all matches with mixed ability groups.
Teams who fail to follow the new guidelines will see all their club's age-group sides thrown out of the tournament and face further disciplinary action.
Most minis tournaments are already played on a round-robin basis, with all teams playing four or five matches and the top four or two from competing groups then going on to play semi-finals or a final.
Win, lose or draw all their games, most competing players go home with a "taking part" medal while the winners take the trophy.
Tournaments are usually streamed into 'A' 'B' or 'C/development' levels, so children of similar standards play against each other.
Hugely popular with children, parents and coaches, the current structure is to be replaced by the new "no losers" approach that is already drawing widespread condemnation and ridicule. Particularly under-fire is the concept of teams being changed mid-match, seemingly removing the whole concept of fighting back against adversity which underpins the very nature of sport.
Rosslyn Park, a hugely successful south-west London club currently boasting between 60 and 80 children in each age group, has already announced its withdrawal from the Surrey Tournament, where the new rules are to be introduced, while many other clubs are canvassing their members for their views.
British newspapers have also been quick to pour scorn on the concept, with a common theme being the question of how the likes of New Zealand and South Africa must be laughing from afar.
A comment piece headlined "must try less hard" in the Daily Telegraph said the move "seems redolent of the heyday of the equality-obsessed 'loony Left'.
"Is such earnestness appropriate for mini-rugby played by eight-year-olds? ('Look here, Smith Minor, you may be pleased you scored that try, but did you stop to think what it might do to the self-esteem of the chaps you thrashed?') And there is a serious drawback to this: misplaced egalitarianism risks denying non-academic children the valuable opportunity of excelling on the sports field. Youngsters, whether playing rugby or Angry Birds, thrive on competition. A 'game' where no one wins is not much fun."
The RFU, however, defends the changes, which it says have been introduced as a way to limit the number of children leaving the sport
Steve Grainger, the RFU's development director, who has suddenly become more in-demand than Lancaster, said they were drawn up after a long consultation period and did not send the message that winning is wrong.
"The tournaments will still have matches which are won or lost but this is about removing the 'win-at-all-costs mentality' which is creeping into the game," Grainger said.
"That can lead to coaches not giving all players a game, just choosing their best players to try to win the tournament, and that will drive kids out of the sport."
Grainger said that it is often the parents on the sidelines who yearn for decisive matches, rather than the children involved, but a straw poll carried out at a Surrey club by Reuters at the weekend found little support for the concept.
Presented with the new tournament rules while battling through the mud and rain on a freezing Sunday morning training session, the overwhelming response from Richmond under-8s was a simple: "that's rubbish."
(Editing by: Ossian Shine)
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