The long-standing Roller Mills rugby tournament has been scrapped as the Northern Region Rugby Council moves away from representative rugby at age groups below under-16. What does this mean for Bay of Plenty and popular tournaments such as the Tai Mitchell?
The Northern Region Rugby Council (NRRC) will no longer provide interprovincial representative rugby opportunities below the under-16 age group.
The decision means the under-13, weight-restricted Roller Mills tournament, which began in 1924, will cease to exist as the NRRC continues to change its approach to representative rugby for young players.
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It is a decision which aligns with the four-year strategic plan Sport New Zealand announced last month which recognises the ever-changing motivations behind children getting active - specifically that physical activity does not have to be overly competitive at a young age.
The changes have been met with some negativity from rugby enthusiasts in the Northern Region but Bay of Plenty Rugby Union community rugby manager Pat Rae said the move was all about inclusivity and he was 100 per cent confident rugby in the Bay would only flourish.
"When the parents and coaches of these under-13 teams tell you it's an opportunity or a pathway for kids to be noticed, I can tell you now that no-one's looking."
Rae backed the NRRC's decision to move away from interprovincial representative competitions, agreeing that a focus on getting more children playing and enjoying the game below under-16 would be beneficial in the long-run.
"Rugby is a late development sport so if you're only focusing on the best little kids at 13, you're potentially missing out on some quality players. From a New Zealand Rugby point of view - we know now when New Zealand Rugby start their selection process and it's not at under-13.
"When the parents and coaches of these under-13 teams tell you it's an opportunity or a pathway for kids to be noticed, I can tell you now that no-one's looking.
"From a Bay of Plenty point of view we certainly have some plans in place for some development opportunities right across that 13s, 14s and 15s age groups. What we want to do is make all the kids better rugby players rather than just the ones that one or two people regard as the best.
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"We want to grow as many people in rugby as possible in those age groups and make sure they have a good time, get some game time and have fun with their mates. Then at the other end, we've got more kids playing rugby and those who are involved in talent identification have a bigger crop to choose from."
Rae also allayed fears the decision would spell the end of the long-standing Tai Mitchell tournament, from which players are often scouted to represent Bay of Plenty at Roller Mills, saying there were in fact plans in place to expand the tournament further.
"It's only interprovincial stuff the Northern Region Council controls so Tai Mitchell remains. I did tell the Tai Mitchell committee, when I came into this role a few months ago, that in order for it to continue receiving support from Bay of Plenty Rugby it would need to evolve.
"That's because the Tai Mitchell Tournament has had the same format for almost as long as Roller Mills and it doesn't really follow the community rugby mantra we're following, which is to do with focusing on the experience for the participants.
"We talked about strategies they could introduce to make it more inclusive. With the massive growth in girls' rugby, it seems a shame that there's no girls' rugby at Tai Mitchell. They were challenged to come up with strategies to do that and at their AGM last week they talked about introducing a girls' sevens programme on a few of the game days so that's a start."
He also wanted the committee to look at other ways of being more inclusive, particularly around the weight restriction criteria of the tournament.
"We want to involve all kids who play at under-13 level, not just the little kids. For example, you could have an under-55kg like they currently have and an over 55kg," Rae said.
Northern Region Rugby Council chairman Neil Alton said during the past 12 months the NRRC had conducted three, independently facilitated, review meetings to look closely at the initiatives it manages.
"There's been lots of research done on why kids play sport and why they enjoy it. The Roller Mills - while the people who were involved in it enjoyed their experience - the downside is 90-plus per cent of kids who were in that age group were basically deselected and told they're not good enough.
"The decision is backed by research showing early selection sends a negative message to young players who still have a number of years to reach their full physical and mental development potential. Rugby is a late specialisation sport.
"From our point of view, our aim is to keep kids in the game for as long as we can. It's clear member provincial unions are keen to take a greater responsibility for retaining and developing players in these age groups by providing opportunities for more players."