by Jeff Rupp, Former SYC Rugby Head Coach and Commissioner
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 minimizes the inherent roughness of standard tackle rugby and allows us to introduce the game to kids and their parents in a non-threatening manner. It also allows us to combine girls and boys as well as wider age groups (e.g., the PRUYL’s U-11 age group comprises 6- to 10-year-olds). This is important given the comparatively few kids who play rugby in the United States; without the wide age groups, many youth clubs would have trouble forming teams. But, as more and more kids play the sport, it will become possible to narrow the age groups.
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 (at the waist or below) 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 loop around the wing, or whatever. 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 kids to be there in support of the ballcarrier, preferably coming from depth or from the "pocket" behind the ballcarrier 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 in the usual positions (two props and a hooker), and the scrumhalf puts the ball straight in the tunnel for the hooker to hook. The other team may not strike at the ball, but if the ball bounces their way they can play it. We try to teach our 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. We teach the kids to set mauls when in heavy traffic or when there is little support. 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. At SYC, we try to teach the kids about rucks so they know what to do if faced with one, but generally we do not use them much ourselves because it is too easy to bump heads.
Lineouts are contested, but no lifting is allowed. Usually we have the standard set-up where the hooker throws in the ball to two props with the scrumhalf waiting for the ball. We teach lineout plays and signals to the kids, but success usually depends on the age group. 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 at SYC 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, but even some of the younger kids have proven the ability to learn and kick fairly well.
Tries, conversions, and drop goals are all the same as with the standard 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 obviously we rarely if ever encourage this.