Today marks the start of junior rugby in the Wanganui Rugby Union area, which includes Waverley, Marton, Taihape, Ohakune, and the places in between.

Hundreds of young players, girls as well as boys, will hopefully look forward to about fifteen weeks of Saturday morning rugger.

To cater for all the different age groups, some rules are adapted to suit the age and physical development of the players.

This may come as a surprise to many readers who probably began playing at a very young age under the same rules as applied to provincial unions and the All Blacks.

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These included tackling and contested scrums and lineouts.

As far as I am aware, there is no scientific research on whether playing full tackle rugby from an early age (most of us were probably about 6-7 years old when we started) has led to any long-lasting impact on our bodies.

However, safety is considered paramount these days and the powers-that-be are taking no chances with today's youngsters.

So, there are law variations in place for all age groups from 6-7-year olds right up to the Under 19 grade.

One rule introduced by the NZRFU insists all players must play at least one half of a game right up to Under 19 grade, a rule that has not been universally welcomed by some coaches.

Other variations may affect the size of the playing field, the length of each game, the size of the ball, the number of players on the field at any one time and how tackles are effected, as well as how set pieces such as scrums and lineouts are played.

For example, 6-7 year olds play the game without tackling.

Instead, each player has a belt with a Velcro tag attached and a tackle occurs when an opponent rips the tag off the ball carrier, who is then allowed a maximum three steps before he or she must pass the ball to a team mate.

No kicking is allowed, other than tap-and-pass kicks if a penalty kick is awarded.
Fending an opponent off is not permitted, nor is barging or pushing an opponent, and there are no scrums or lineouts.

These games are played over two twenty-minute halves and are usually refereed by the coaches or a keen parent who are encouraged to apply the advantage law "generously".

By the time players are 8-10 years old they are allowed to tackle, scrummage and play lineouts, but with some law modifications.

These games are usually played across one half of a field and with ten-aside teams.
Games last twenty-five minutes per half and are also usually refereed by coaches or enthusiastic parents.

Tackles must be below the level of the nipple and no fending or pushing off is allowed.
Scrums and lineouts will have five from each team and must not be contested – in other words, the team putting the ball into the scrum or lineout must win the ball.

Rucks and mauls appear for the first time but it is probably fair to say players only want to get their hands on the ball so there can be a lot of players playing the ball illegally in these phases.

So, the focus for these grades of rugby is on having fun, with limited contact.

Full 15 player games using full field begin at the Under 11 age grade.

There is still no fending or pushing allowed in tackles and eight person scrums are still uncontested, with no pushing allowed.

However, lineouts can be contested, although no lifting is allowed, and these games are played over two twenty-five minute halves.

Only at the Under 12-13 grades are scrums allowed to be fully contested, although a team is only allowed to push half a metre over the mark.

Games last for two 30 minute halves and all players in a team must play at least half of the game.

In Whanganui, the union is endeavouring to have all Under 11-13 games refereed by registered officials from the local referees' association, but there is no guarantee this will occur at all games, especially away from the city.

Although secondary school rugby is played on a full field and follows the normal tackle, scrum and lineout rules, there are one or two variations that coaches and players need to be aware of.

At a scrum, a team is only allowed to push 1.5m over the mark, otherwise they will be free-kicked.

The ball is not allowed to be kept at the back of the scrum but the No8 is allowed to pick the ball up and run with it (or pass it).

Wheeling a scrum is illegal and sanctioned with a penalty kick.

Numbers must always be matched in a scrum, so if one team has one or more players less than the permitted eight, then the other team must only have the same number of players.

The off-side line for the halfback not putting the ball into the scrum is the centre line – he cannot follow the ball as in senior rugby.

Games at this level last thirty-five minutes in each half and are usually very enjoyable to referee as players are positive and strive to try their best to help their team win the match.

It can be quite satisfying to referee these teams more than once during a season and see the development of skills and team work which good coaches have instilled in them.

If only they took the time to learn the rules as well we might not need any referees at all – a bit like driverless cars, really.