COMMENT:

When a major review into schools rugby was published earlier this year it failed in just one respect, which was to identify the root cause of nearly all the problems it correctly identified as blighting the game at that level.

The report was so clear on what was going wrong but not so detailed on the why.

It didn't quite get round, understandably perhaps, to concluding that the biggest problem in schools rugby is the almost absurd expectations held by parents, many of whom exert relentless pressure on their children, coaches and teachers to take the game far more seriously than they should.

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Winter sport for kids used to be about having fun, while being pushed to the edge of their respective comfort zones.

Now it seems it is more about parents – across the socio-demographic spectrum - living vicariously through their children, pushing them too hard, too soon all driven by ridiculous hopes of where it might end up.

Sidelines across the country used to echo with the sounds of encouragement, now they carry a foreboding sense of parental frustration that a bad pass, dropped ball or poor call by the referee might have cost their child, barely through puberty, the professional contract they thought they were well on the way to collecting.

At some stage in the last decade or so, pushy parents, their heads filled by a toxic combination of their own sporting failures and desire to see their children, almost regardless of their talent, become something, hijacked the entire rugby system.

A system that was once working well no longer is and while parents up and down the country might find it outrageous that they are being blamed for the mess that is now schools rugby, they can't pretend they haven't applied subliminal pressure on their respective institutions to invest more in delivering rugby excellence.

They can't pretend that hundreds, if not thousands of parents, convinced their child is entitled to stardom, haven't asked for some kind of special treatment in return for sporting achievement.

And undeniable is that the booming industry that is rugby scholarships is fuelled by parents touting their child almost as much as it is the schools hunting them down.

Then there is the overt pressure, the abusive and out of control behaviour on the sidelines each weekend which is indicative of results meaning much more to the parents than they do to the pupils.

Now it seems rugby is more about parents living vicariously through their children. Photo / Photosport
Now it seems rugby is more about parents living vicariously through their children. Photo / Photosport

Parents, way more than pupils, are gripped by the dream of professional rugby yet the statistics show that not even one per cent, if that, of teenagers playing today will earn a living out of rugby.

This, however, hasn't deterred parents from bullying schools into creating academies for the so-called elite and talking about pathways when we used to just call it going to school.

Somehow it wasn't enough any more to trust that schools could trial a wide group of new entrants and work out who the top 60 were.

Somehow it wasn't enough any more to trust the natural progression of these things and let those who have the desire and ability gravitate from having fun to taking things a bit more seriously as they get older.

Instead, parents have agitated to fast-track matters and stream kids from a farcically young age and ramp the pressure on schools to treat them as gifted.

Secondary schools, catering for what their parental communities wanted, asked their respective rugby teams to train more, to be careful about what they ate, to work in the gym and to generally consider themselves to be the All Blacks in everything but name.

What was apparent long before NZR commissioned a review whose findings confirmed it, is that schools rugby has been decimated by a generation of parents who frankly lost the plot when it came to their kids and sport.

Teenagers of today may well be obsessed with their phones and social media but thousands more would be playing rugby if they were just allowed to run around without any expectation of being any good at it or shamed for not aspiring to be world class.

So many more would be playing if they hadn't felt that when they were 13, the system abandoned them when they weren't picked for the elite group. So many more would be playing if they felt rugby at their level wasn't being mismanaged by one group of misguided adults hoping to win approval from another group of misguided adults.

Rugby has paid a particularly high price for chasing greatness and catering mostly, and in some cases, only, for those who see it as a potential career.

While there is no question more kids are coming out of First XV teams stronger, faster and better equipped to crack professional rugby than at any point in history, it comes at the cost of so many others giving up on rugby altogether.

Back in the day there was a natural flow of kids from schools to clubs, but not now.

Fans at a Westlake v Massey first XV rugby game. Photo / Photosport
Fans at a Westlake v Massey first XV rugby game. Photo / Photosport

There's barely a trickle because schools have been pressured into defining success as delivering one player to the professional ranks as opposed to 50 to the local club.

And hence the game, as detailed in the review, is experiencing a rapid and consistent decline in boys' playing numbers and one that won't be arrested until there is a monumental shift in parental attitudes and expectations.

Sadly, the last few weeks have provided little hope that relief is on the way.

Change is occurring at an administrative and executive level and both North Harbour and Tasman have scrapped their Under-14 representative programmes.

Both unions have talked to their participants and the feedback is clear that kids that age don't want to be split into the elite and non-elite. It's driving them away from rugby.

It's divisive, puts needless pressure on children and as New Zealand Rugby has suggested, serves as no indicator as to whether anyone selected will still be in the frame five years later.

Effectively an Under-14 representative team is rewarding children for reaching puberty before their peers and next year, NZR has hinted that the programme will be scrapped nationwide.

But by then, judging by the reaction to Harbour's plan, hundreds if not thousands of parents will have packed their children off to alternative sports which in their view promote and foster a greater competitive spirit and reward winners appropriately.

There was genuine rage from parents who seemed to consider the scrapping of Harbour's programme as the first step towards some kind of dystopian future.

Hell hath no fury like a parent denied the chance to see their kid in a North Harbour Under-14 tracksuit and rugby will be doomed if its attempts to build a wider playing base by keeping more kids interested for longer, are ridiculed and accused of destroying the social fabric of New Zealand.

If rugby is to flourish again in schools, the collective goal of all those involved needs to be to foster in kids a life-long love of the game, not to parade champions at 13.

Connected to this is the increasingly compelling research that says rugby should delay the contact element of the game until children are at least 12.

Again the reaction to this has been predictably hostile and tedious as if the entire pioneering spirit of New Zealand will be lost if kids aren't learning how to push through concussive injuries.

It's both sad and infuriating that so many parents can't see that a system which promotes participation as much as it does excellence is in everyone's best interests.

So too would New Zealand be forging ahead of the rest of the world should it rule rugby to be non-contact until kids reach their teens.

Parental expectation has taken schools rugby to a bad place, but the lunacy can stop and common sense can prevail if everyone can remember that kids sport is for kids.