Tackling options and 'times tables' - the app to solve the skills deficit in junior rugby

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Wimbledon RFC - Getty Images
Wimbledon RFC - Getty Images

Pause for a minute, channel your inner child and rack your brain for moments from the British and Irish Lions’ series against South Africa that were captivating enough to linger in the memories of young observers.

Maro Itoje’s match-winning steal in the first Test would qualify. Crafty, try-scoring kicks from Handré Pollard and Faf de Klerk a week later were cool. Cheslin Kolbe’s electric finish lit up the decider, as did Finn Russell’s imaginative distribution.

Unless brawny scrums and mauls or tense aerial battles engrossed juniors – and they may have done, it takes all sorts – that makes five or six inspiring flashes, at a push, over three hours of rugby. Longer if you count the breaks for water and physio treatment.

This epitomises one of modern rugby union’s concerning disconnects that could hinder participation among youngsters. Russell Earnshaw, a co-founder of the RockIt Rugby app, outlines the issue.

rugby - REUTERS
rugby - REUTERS

“It’s difficult if coaches watch those games and assume that’s what they’re working towards,” he says.

“The reality is that we don’t know what we’re working towards because, in 10 years’ time when the eight-year-olds of today start senior rugby, the game could look completely different.

“I’d think it would look more like Harlequins and New Zealand and some of the sevens being played. It’ll be a game of skill with high ball-in-play. With due respect, that wasn’t what the Lions series was, was it?”

Earnshaw, a former back-rower for Bath and Rotherham, contributed to World Rugby’s law tweaks around the breakdown. He also set up The Magic Academy, a thriving consultancy and sharing platform, with John Fletcher and is a vastly experienced coach who picks up trends on the road.

“When I go to coach clubs, there are kids who can only pass off one hand,” he adds. “Others are told that they are not allowed to kick.

“That means they are not practising what I would call their rugby times tables. Those kids are the ones who are increasingly likely to drop out of our game.”

Russell Earnshaw - Christopher Pledger
Russell Earnshaw - Christopher Pledger

RockIt Rugby could be thought of as the digital maths teacher aiming to ingrain these times tables.

Teased by social media video messages from stars including Ellis Genge, Marcus Smith, Manu Tuilagi, Tom Mitchell and Vicky Fleetwood to generate a buzz, the app was launched on August 29, a Sunday, at 10am. The timing was important. Sunday morning is synonymous with rugby clubs for many families.

Currently, the app is aimed at players between the ages of seven and 15. It costs £10 for a season and parents create a profile for their kids, who are presented with six levels of challenges per age-group – five regular ones plus a ‘boss level’.

Sidestepping as many defenders as possible at training, and then aiming to better that total in the next session, is an example of a level one challenge for under-7s. Throwing two 10-metre passes off each hand in a match might be one for older users.

The concept of ‘gameification’ has been embraced. By fulfilling challenges, kids build up their scores in three categories – ‘brain’, ‘rugby’ and ‘physical’ – which are displayed on a card. Think moveable Top Trumps or, as many children will be doing, player attributes on the FIFA videogames.

RockIt Rugby - RockIt Rugby
RockIt Rugby - RockIt Rugby

“There is a sense of choice,” Earnshaw points out. “You can navigate your way to the boss level in a number of ways without taking the same route as someone else. We’re definitely not looking to micro-manage anyone.”

To succeed, RockIt Rugby will need skill development to be prioritised over results in certain cases. Earnshaw would encourage junior coaches on opposing teams to meet before matches, perhaps discussing the challenges their players are targeting. There might be flurries of offloads or a focus on interceptions, for instance.

He appreciates that some may view this approach as “pink and fluffy”, but stresses that contact skills are comprehensively covered by RockIt Rugby.

Without expertise and sound instincts in this area, he says, kids are more likely to pick up injuries and decide the sport is not for them. This resonates with the argument put forward by Martin Johnson in his Telegraph Sport interview this week. As ever, intuitive coaching helps.

“You can’t just tell kids: ‘Tackle low, do this’,” Earnshaw continues. “They need different options to get the ball back.”

As part of a team hangout function, coaches and players can post videos and written messages, and there is a ‘missions’ feature. Here, channelling the backyard skills clips that exploded over the pandemic, Earnshaw and co are keen to call upon high-profile professionals, the players’ heroes, to join in.

The hope is that RockIt Rugby strengthens relationships between coaches and players, providing individualised support. Parents should become more engaged in what their children are up to as well. Most importantly, the app is likely to bring together different coaches.

“During lockdown, the RFU [Rugby Football Union] got rid of a lot of staff that support coaches,” adds Earnshaw. “A community of coaches that want to get better and want to help players get better is critical. It’s the future of our game, frankly.”

There is a simple riposte to sceptics. At the very least, players that rattle through RockIt Rugby’s challenges and immerse themselves in the app will be staying engaged with the sport.

“It will be helpful for coaches,” Earnshaw finishes. “It’s not going to make their lives more onerous. It’ll make them easier and more fruitful. Their coaching will be more effective.

“The end point for us is skilful, adaptable players. If some coaches don’t want to do it, that’s cool. Don’t get the app if you don’t want skilful, adaptable players.”

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