OPINION: Coaches of junior football teams all over the country are getting their teams together for the new season.
The following conversation takes place.
"So are all the boys playing again this season?" "Well, we've gained some and lost some. On the gain side, there's a boy who's just come out from England.
His best mate once saw England play at Wembley, so he should be all right. And Sam's little brother wants to play this year, but his parents can't run them both around for different teams, so they'll both play for us."
‘F‘Great. And who have we lost?"
"Liam's dad's in a witness protection programme so they've left town, Harry's taken up the piano and the lessons are on Saturday mornings . . ." "And?" The words that freeze the blood: "And we've lost three to rugby."
Rugby. The sport that grips the imagination of our young so strongly that no amount of McDonalds' player-of-the-day vouchers can break it.
Why, football coaches wonder, would a small, slight boy, switch to rugby?
"Because his mates are playing rugby," the parents tell you. "We don't mind what he plays as long as he plays something."
Sounds good. But is it?
Is freedom of choice so important for a 7 or 8-year-old? Do they get to choose their school, their subjects, their bedtimes, or whether they are immunised or circumcised?
If wee Nathan came home and said "Mum, I don't fancy that spaghetti bolognese. Cook me a steak," he would be told in no uncertain terms to pull his head in.
No, everything is decided for kids by their parents, including , in some cases, their sport. Swimming, for instance, is an activity that many parents insist their child learns.
And martial arts. Why not other sports if the parents feel that mastering that sport will give their child a better life?
Nothing against rugby. Great game. Source of some great moment in New Zealand's sporting history. But rugby has become a game for very powerful athletes. Few are the players built like Terry Wright and David Kirk who excel in rugby anymore.
So when wee Nate, a short ectomorph, decides to play rugby, are his parents doing him any favours by acceding to his wishes? His chances of reaching a decent level in a sport dominated by big, strong, aggressive athletes are virtually nil, and indeed the likelihood of him still playing rugby at all in his teens are slim.
On the other hand, football is a game where the midge can excel. Even if he reaches only a mediocre standard, he'll have learned a life skill that will stand him in good stead.
When travelling overseas, in almost any country he cares to visit, he'll be able to find a casual kick around on a public park and join in. In conversations, he'll be able to offer insights such as "useful player that Messi".
If he's a useful player himself, and he hasn't neglected his studies, he might be able win a scholarship at a US university. When he's old and past it, he's more likely to be able to carry on playing social football and all along, according to ACC stats, he'll have spent less time at the physio.
But with that single decision to ditch football for rugby, he says goodbye to all that. Yes, he could come back to football, but he's lost time learning the complex skills at a critical age.
It would be difficult to catch up. Besides, if he returns to football, he'll have changed codes twice. Chopping and changing are not usually conducive to success in your chosen field.
So, should young Oliver announce that he wants to play rugby this year, the parent could say: "Hmm, it'll be a tight squeeze fitting rugby in with your compulsory activities like school and football, but it'll certainly toughen you up for your football, so I think it's a great idea."
- Billy Harris is a former All White
- Sunday Star Times
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