Youth rugby as played in the Potomac Rugby Union Youth League (PRUYL) is a non-contact variation to the laws of rugby. The “non-contact” aspect involves substituting two-hand tag for the tackle and using uncontested scrums, mauls, and rucks. This eliminates all but incidental contact and allows the game to be introduced to kids and their parents. It also allows us to combine girls and boys as well as wider age groups, particular for practice purposes. The PRUYL requires programs create both u9 and u11 teams, however, some smaller groups have difficulty supporting the age brackets and accommodations will be made to support those growing clubs.
The youth game is played with 7 players per team on the field at a time, with 40-minute games divided into 10-minute quarters of running time. In the PRUYL, we allow open substitutions between quarters; with previous agreement of both teams’ coaches we can allow substitutions during dead ball time in the middle of quarters.
The main differences from the standard game are that 2-hand tag (below the waist and above the knee) replaces the tackle, and that scrums, mauls, and rucks are uncontested.
How does the tag work? Let’s say in open play a defender tags the ballcarrier. (Important point: it’s a tag, not a push or shove or twist or pull or anything potentially dangerous, for which the sanction is a penalty kick.) The referee then shouts “Tag!” and the ballcarrier must “immediately” play the ball by passing it to a teammate or putting it on the ground (can’t kick ahead after a tag). The definition of “immediately” varies by age group: for U-11 kids, it might mean a quick 2-count (tag, one, two), whereas with the U-15 and U-17 kids it’s more like a 1-count. The defender who made the tag cannot interfere at all with the ballcarrier’s attempt to play the ball, and other defenders must not interfere within a 1-meter circle around the ballcarrier. These other defenders can, however, clog the passing lanes outside that 1-meter zone and poach a pass. There is no risk of being offsides because it is general play at this point.
From a coaching standpoint, though, we do not necessarily want our ballcarrier to wait until after he/she is tagged to pass the ball. We try to get the kids to think ahead, commit a defender, and pass just before the tag. Or pass quickly down the line and maneuver to get back into the play. This type of activity away from the ball is important to other sports like soccer and basketball.
But depending on the age group, this does not sink in very quickly. So, we also must emphasize with the ballcarrier that he/she must be careful with the pass after the tag. And, of course, we try to teach the other players to be there in support of the ballcarrier, preferably coming from depth behind the ballcarrier often referred to as the “pocket” where there is less risk of interception.
What if the ballcarrier takes too long to pass the ball? Then the referee awards a scrum to the other team. Scrums are uncontested. Three players from each team line up facing each other (two “props” and a “hooker”), they lean in against one another. The scrumhalf puts the ball straight in the tunnel created by the players, and the hooker uses his/her foot to “strike the ball backwards. This is a non-competitive environment – neither team can push the other and they may not strike at the ball. Of course, if the ball bounces out the other way the opposition can play it. We try to teach the hooker to keep the ball under control and in the scrum under foot until the scrumhalf takes it, so as to keep the defenders on their side of the offsides line (behind the last foot of the scrum on their side). Once the ball is out, the offsides line disappears and general play resumes.
Mauls and rucks are also uncontested. Mauls are formed when player are on thier feet, though this element does not occur often in the under-11 game. To form a maul and set an offsides line, the ballcarrier must shout “Maul!” loudly before getting tagged by a defender, then one other teammate must strip the ball (which means taking the ball from the teammate who set the maul in the first place), and remain bound or “tagged up” with the original ballcarrier. The referee shouts “Maul, green team!” (or whatever) to signal that a maul is formed by that team. Meanwhile, a defender must bind (“tag up”) to the ballcarrier, and then another defender must link up and bind on (“tag up”) behind the first defender. If the second defender arrives late, the ballcarrier and teammate in the maul may walk backward downfield toward their opponent’s goal line until the second defender binds on. At that point they must stop, and the scrumhalf of the team that set the maul, or another teammate not in the maul, must “immediately” play the ball out.
Rucks are similar except that the ballcarrier shouts “Set!” before gently binding onto the first defender and placing the ball on the ground directly beneath himself/herself. Second players from each team must bind on, then the scrumhalf plays the ball out. We teach the players about rucks so they know what to do if faced with one, but generally we do not use them much with the under-11 group as it cab be easy to bump heads.
Lineouts are used to restart play when the ball has gone out of bounds. The two props stand in a line facing the sideline or “touchline”, the opposition matches up with them. When ready, the hooker stands at sideline, and throws in the ball to one of the props. They catch (hopefully) the ball while the scrumhalf waits for a quick pass from the props. The scrumhalf then restarts general play with a run or pass out. Remember, it is contested, so defenders may go after the ball, though they cannot barge or push an opponent (penalty kick).
Penalties for infractions are generally the same as in the standard game: e.g., offsides, intentional obstruction, dangerous play. The only arguable exception is that we award a scrum when a ballcarrier takes too long to play the ball instead of a penalty (in the standard game that could be considered killing the ball). The penalized team must drop back 10 meters, and the ballcarrier must properly tap through the mark, kick to touch, or attempt a penalty goal.
Open-field kicking is allowed, and we encourage teaching kids at all ages how to kick properly both in terms of technique and tactics. Again, success depends on the kicker’s age, coordination and strength, but even some of the younger kids have proven the ability to learn and kick fairly well. However, we really want the kids to learn how to pass and catch the ball and make decisions with opposition (similar to basketball, soccer and other skills).
Tries (touchdowns), conversions (kick-after), and drop goals (field goals) are all part of the scoring and exactly the same in the adult game. We teach the kids to try to center the ball when scoring a try; the kids can take a minute to attempt a conversion (drop kick or from a tee); and they may attempt a drop goal in general play, though for the younger age groups it is not encouraged.
Please checkout the links page for some good web resources on rugby. There are also some good books about rugby (“Rugby for Dummies”). Most of the concepts will apply, but most resources generally focus on the tackle game.