Touch rugby in England is somewhat of a joke.
It is an odd feeling having to describe “real” Touch Rugby (or “Touch” to give its official name) to rugby fanatics. Unfortunately, this is a common occurrence in Europe. Genuine surprise spreads across people’s faces when you tell them there is a Touch World Cup.
I have it on good authority this is not the case in Australasia.
RFU and Touch Rugby
The RFU operate “O2 Touch Rugby”, a grassroots initiative to attract new players to rugby. And equally, to retain those leaving rugby when the contact becomes too much.
This is ultimately a numbers game, the RFU want their records to say they are catching up with the player numbers of football. O2 want to reach as many people as possible.
It is fun, cheesy (check out the O2 Touch Instagram), low quality, social Touch, and there is a big disconnect between it and competition Touch and national Touch, which is frankly, a closed shop catering to those who have spent time in Australasia.
The goal of O2 Touch is admirable; I am all for expanding the player base in England. However, the RFU are missing a massive opportunity to take 15s to the next level by incorporating Touch into their player development strategy.
James Haskell and Touch Rugby
James Haskell recently commented he wished he spent more time as a youngster playing Touch than in the gym. Recent rule changes have resulted in more ball-in-play time. This increases the need for higher core skill levels. What better sport to use for player development, therefore, than one which uses a size 4 ball, has a ridiculously high number of passes per minute, and penalises you for dropping the ball (forward or back)?
Touch requires speed, footwork, positional sense, finishing ability and a swivel for a neck. It makes you think differently about space, how to create it, how to exploit it. Haskell recognises the importance of these skills; he knows where 15s is heading.
And yet, Touch and 15s in England are run entirely independently.
My experience in Touch Rugby
After 2 years solely playing Touch, I believe I am a far better rugby player than I ever was before. I left 15s with average handling ability – nothing noteworthy. Returning to a size 5 ball now, I feel like Quade Cooper, Harlem Globetrotter.
It is my belief that Touch should overtake 7s as the 15s off-season development sport, and that 7s should take its rightful place as a sport in its own right. Bar a few high-profile players (Vakatawa, Ioane, Sonny Bill), it is becoming increasingly difficult to make the transition between 15s and 7s, far more stars fail than succeed (Habana, Cummins, Cooper, Messam, Hayne). Diverging tactics and style of play mean 7s relevance as a development sport is becoming less and less.
Touch has opened my eyes to how rugby truly works. And it can open up the whole of Europe’s eyes too. I am tired of being told Southern Hemisphere players have higher skillsets. Let’s do something about it, and start taking Touch seriously.
Author: Richard C
A sport nut, originally from the UK, now coaching Women’s 7s in a “Tier 3” country.