Bigger not always better to spot rugby league talent

Youths who are bigger and earlier maturing at age 14 are less likely to become professional rugby league players in adulthood than their smaller peers, new research has shown.

The study, led by Leeds Beckett University, also found that playing position affected how likely adolescents were to progress to elite or professional levels in the sport. Findings showed junior pivots were three times more likely to become professional players than junior props.

The international team of researchers tracked 580 youngsters who were chosen for the Rugby Football League's (RFL) talent development programme between 2005 and 2007. The team gathered data on players’ size, maturity, body fat percentage, speed, fitness and playing position at 13, 14 and 15 years of age and compared those that progressed to play professional Super League with those that didn't in 2014.

They found that, as well as player position, relative age affected their progression. Players selected to the programme but born later in the annual age category (i.e. June-August) were three times more likely to become professionals than those born earlier in the year (i.e. September-November). Speed, agility and endurance were also key factors: leaner players with greater speed, change of direction and endurance were also more likely to progress.

Although the RFL's talent development programme has changed since the earlier data was gathered for the study, the findings still have implications for how coaches work with younger players and the basis on which players are chosen to progress through talent development programmes.

Lead researcher Dr Kevin Till is a Senior Lecturer in Sports Coaching at Leeds Beckett University and a strength and conditioning coach at Leeds Rhinos RLFC and Yorkshire Carnegie RUFC. He said:

“Young players shouldn’t be pigeonholed into a certain playing position as our findings indicate that can limit their development and hamper their opportunities. Coaches need to look to develop all players’ attributes, rather than pick for certain positions on size alone.

“Our data suggests that adolescent players that are later maturing and have a lower body mass are more likely to attain professional status. So coaches and selectors also need to be aware of players maturity and take this into account in their decisions on player identification. However, advanced speed, agility and fitness at junior ages does seem to contribute to future player progression and are important factors to develop in young players.”

The study involved researchers from Leeds Beckett University and Liverpool John Moores University in the UK and the University of Sydney in Australia.