How does a small country on the other side of the world with a population similar to Wales manage to produce such outstanding rugby players?
Nearly every time New Zealand play rugby, something exceptional and exciting happens – and they usually win too. How often have you heard commentators gushing over the seemingly miraculous off loads trademarked by Sonny Bill Williams? S4C and the BBC commentators also seem surprised that a giant lock such as Ali Williams can not only smash into a ruck, scrummage and jump in the line but can actually run a great angle and pass the ball too!
So what is the All Blacks big secret? The answer is a game started in 1960s Australia by a group of ex-rugby league players – Touch (more often known here as Touch Rugby). Touch is a great way to learn basic skills of rugby such as how to avoid an opponent with a good pass or run and how to find the open spaces on the field. Over 230,000 play the sport in New Zealand, including 70,000 children. Surprisingly, only 147,000 Kiwis play traditional rugby.
In Wales, there are currently only about 3,000 people (mostly adults) playing Touch and the vast majority of them play in the Cardiff leagues. However, this is set to change.
There is now a chance for everyone in west Wales to try the sport in a new tournament called ‘Gorllewin Gwyllt’ (‘Wild West’ in English) in early May. The tournament is the vision of Matthew Adams from Pencarreg, Carmarthenshire. Matthew works as a sports officer and saw potential in the game whilst playing Touch in a league in Cardiff. In 2010, through his work, Matthew established a Touch league in Llanelli. The first season saw around 150 men and women compete each week. The league returns in May and it is hoped that there will be even more interest. Following the success of that league, he has now decided to establish the Gorllewin Gwyllt tournament on the fields in Llandysul in the hope of kick starting regular games of Touch there too.
The tournament is part of the impending revolution in Wales. The Welsh Rugby Union has just appointed 14 new participation officers (POs) who will be responsible for the development of Touch in the community and schools. Plaudits must go to the Wales Touch Association (WTA) for pushing this through having pressurised the WRU for some time about the virtues of Touch.
Also part of the PO role is to engage adults in what the WRU term leisure rugby which encompasses Touch (indoor and outdoor versions). What is interesting is that this represents a new market for the WRU. Up until now, they have only supported traditional rugby union through clubs and schools. Through the POs, the WRU is now hoping to break into a number of new areas such as coaching 3-5 year olds, with their Little Stars programme. The WRU Leisure Rugby programme will incorporate Touch through a partnership with the WTA. Furthermore, they are hoping to draw adults back into sport by playing an indoor hybrid of rugby and netball as part of the Back to Sport initiative, this time in partnership with Welsh Netball. This could be a fantastic way of encouraging more adults to take a sport again. In Wales, we see an alarming drop off from sport which results in many teenagers and adults becoming almost completely inactive. In Carmarthenshire, for example, only a third of adults do enough physical activity to see any health benefit. This could be about to change.
Why is the WRU’s adoption of Touch significant? It means that Wales will now join New Zealand and Australia by using Touch as a stepping stone into rugby union. Young children will be initially introduced to Touch in schools and in the community. The game is simple, the rules are easy to learn and there is very little physical contact. This means that both boys and girls can safely play together – good news for primary school teachers with 30 boys and girls in one class.
It also means that in order to successfully play the game, children will need to develop excellent passing, dodging and running skills. Since physical strength and power are not the primary skills of Touch, it doesn’t favour children whose growth spurts have made them much taller and more powerful than their peers and can therefore literally run through their opponents. Who remembers the kid that crosses the try line in a wake of destruction with three or four other kids hanging off him unable to tackle him?! See You Can Play Rugby But You Can’t Play Touch post
For those of you not familiar with the sport, there are 6 players in a team. Due to the minimal physical contact, men and women or children and adults can play in the same team. See What is Touch? post.
Gorllewin Gwyllt is the first opportunity to take part in a touch family competition in Wales. This is an opportunity to try this exciting sport and to see how the Touch can improve your skills.