The non-contact game has plenty of appeal for a wide range of players. (Supplied: Australian Oztag)
Could Oztag be rugby league’s saving grace?
The non-contact sport is growing in popularity while traditional rugby league is grappling with a decline in youth participation numbers.
Just this weekend, Australia dominated the Oztag World Cup, winning 17 of 19 categories in Coffs Harbour.
“We are always astounded with the growing numbers. In the first Cup in 2012 there were 98 teams competing — this year, for the third [year], we had 179,” Bill Harrigan, former NRL referee and 2018 Oztag World Cup director, said.
As the former head of refereeing for the NRL, Harrigan has seen first-hand how brutal rugby league can be, and he says many concerned parents and teenagers are turning to Oztag as a safer alternative.
“Absolutely we get a lot of teenage players taking it up. Both my boys, when they turned 12, they were getting hammered by really big boys in rugby league and they both had to bow out, and both picked up tag,” Harrigan said.
Oztag games feature much of the speed and skill of rugby league without the tackling. (Supplied: Australian Oztag)
“Because you aren’t being tackled, the unpredictability of it is very appealing to a lot of players, especially teenagers and females.”
Competitors travelled from France, Ireland, Japan, South Africa and China for the Oztag Wold Cup, with 28 countries represented and 3,640 participants competing in male and female divisions, from under 16s to over 50s.
Australia went in as favourites but there were some upsets in the blue ribbon event, the men’s open. Australia got knocked out in the semi-finals and the Kiwi Tag Blacks won overall.
In an effort to bring people back to league, the New South Wales Rugby League (NSWRL) is introducing a non-contact competition for juniors and open age groups from next season.
A study published earlier this year involving 25 retired NRL players found repeated head injuries left players with long-term brain impairments.
Blues Tag is targeting boys and girls aged 11 to 17, on a full field with 11 players. An open age group will also be offered.
“We are pushing Blues Tag to remove contact and make the game accessible to even more people via integration into existing club structures,” NSWRL head of football Barrie-Jon Mather said.
“It is a fun and safe way for children to try rugby league and will ease any concerns parents may have about weight and age.”
The Australian Medical Association says it welcomes the move by the NSWRL.
“With so many adults and children in Australia not meeting physical activity recommendations, providing non-contact sport options may help increase participation,” AMA President Dr Tony Bartone said.
“Concussion and injury are not limited to contact sports, but we can work to minimise the chance of any long-term problems by adopting practical, evidence-based recommendations.”
The NSWRL says children will still be taught the fundamental skills of the game including passing, catching, kicking and playing the ball without being pressured to tackle.
“I’ve got no doubt the league has had a look at our model and can see that it is working,” Harrigan said.
There were 179 teams competing in the various categories at this year’s Oztag World Cup. (Supplied: Australian Oztag)
“They’ve also aligned themselves with [Touch Football Australia] to increase their numbers — they can obviously see the popularity of Oztag and the growth rate, and are jumping on the bandwagon.
“It’s appealing whether you’re six years old or female, and you can still be running around doing it if you have the legs at 60-plus.”
The NSWRL says all of the junior leagues have been supportive of what will be a proper competition.
“Rugby league has always been an inclusive sport and we are confident this will open the game up to new participants and offer another avenue to existing players.”