It was the innovation that helped form new friendships and signal a new era for the New South Wales Rugby League, but a new socially-orientated format of Rugby League may also have helped combat some cross-code rivals.
Despite being situated deep in Manly Sea Eagles territory, St Augustine’s College Brookvale is traditionally a Rugby Union school – and one of several scattered across Sydney’s Northern Beaches. While Rugby League has long held a presence in these areas through the Sea Eagles, Rugby Union is the predominant code played within the school’s boundaries, resulting in the gradual loss of many students to the 15-man game.
Providing a smaller, recreational format of Rugby League on Thursday nights after school, however, the NSWRL’s W8s program has made some progress in changing that. St Augustine’s were eager to be a part of the five-week trial, which was run from St Ives Showground in the Upper North Shore, and the school’s Sports Coordinator Mick Simmons explains it was a popular choice with his students.
“We’ve got two teams: the under-12s and the under-14s, both from St Augustine’s,” Simmons told NSWRL.com.au. “The boys have got a lot out of it – they’re very much into it and it’s been a great program to date.
“The school’s very much pleased with the outcome and hopefully next year it continues and we put more teams in.”
With the dominance of Rugby Union within the school, Rugby League was foreign to some students, but the friendly and respectful atmosphere was the ideal way to introduce them to the game.
“They’ve got their heads around it pretty quickly – and they’ve enjoyed it immensely,” Simmons added. “There’s a few boys that have really had to concentrate on their tackle technique and I think that will definitely help.
“Now they’re actually really interested in Rugby League, so it’s a good outcome for the New South Wales Rugby League and also for the school.”
With two age groups run in W8s’ initial trial, the under-13s team would have to play up an age group; while the added difficulty would normally hurt the players’ confidence, however, the team was just happy to be playing with friends and enjoying themselves.
“It’s really fun,” under-13s captain Jed Walsh said. “Everyone goes in together and if it’s getting too hard they mix up the teams to make it fair.
“There’s heaps of new people that I’ve met here and you meet heaps of new friends – it’s really social.”
While it’s non-competitive environment, modified rules – such as an emphasis on correct tackle technique and a ‘retreat’ rule to open up the game – mean the program also provides a way for players to improve their skills and fitness in the off season.
“I’ve got much better, especially fitter because you have to run back after the first two tackles,” Walsh added. “You also have to make sure you get a proper technique of tackling – I think it’s good for all the kids coming into Rugby League.”
More than 100 boys participated in the trial and while it was a general success, the NSWRL will now review the program and participant feedback to aim to improve it in future. Further M8s programs are likely to be held across Sydney in early 2017, while there is also the potential to implement it directly in schools. For the students at St Augustine’s, they will return to school with greater Rugby League knowledge, more friends and more memories than they had to begin with.