The NSWRL has moved to keep children in the sport by introducing 21 weight and age competitions across Sydney that will have major ramifications on participation levels in rugby league.
The initiative has been backed by Penrith halfback Nathan Cleary, who recently told Fairfax Media he wouldn’t be playing the sport if it wasn’t for the weight and age competition he played while living in New Zealand as a teenager.
Debate over allowing smaller children on the same field as much bigger kids the same age has been rife over the past few years.
But over the next four months the NSWRL will run competitions in the Penrith, Parramatta, Manly, Balmain and Western Suburbs districts that will place emphasis on ensuring children aren’t lost to the sport because of a fear of getting hurt.
“After my first-ever match it was hard to even fathom playing footy because the skill aspect was out of the game,” Cleary said. “It was all about whoever could run the hardest and tackle the hardest. If you’re just getting smashed all the time it’s not much fun as a little bloke.”
The NSWRL has implemented a range of competitions that caters for children as young as 10, as well as an adults Friday night nine-a-side competition.
“We know that unevenness of competition and the time commitment of a long season are major factors why kids turn away from the game,” NSWRL football general manager BJ Mather said.
“The opportunity to play a casual game with your mates, feel like you’re able to compete in a weights program or just have some fun and sample the atmosphere at Friday Night 9s means that there’s always an option for you to play the game that you love.”
Cleary spent most of his junior sport days out on the soccer field while living in New Zealand when his father Ivan Cleary, now Wests Tigers coach, was in charge of the Warriors.
The first game of rugby league he played was an open age and open weight contest, an experience that almost saw him lost from the game completely.
“I’ll never forget it,” Cleary said. “I came from a soccer game to play an open weight game of footy. These kids … I just couldn’t believe it. We got flogged. I was 12. A real soccer skinny boy.
“These kids were huge. I mean, they had moustaches. I remember coming halfway through the game watching someone I knew getting carried off with a dislocated shoulder. I was like, ‘what have I gotten myself into’.”
That following year he moved into a weighted competition.
“If it wasn’t for that, there’s every chance he never would have played again,” Ivan Cleary said of the weight for age competitions.
“When you move house, or in our situation, move country after I left the Warriors, one of the things you have to do is sell it to the kids. That was one of the ones with Nat, telling him the footy is going to be totally different. It’s only luck he was playing at all.”
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