Participation. In many ways that word hangs like an incubus over every development strategy our sport has come up with in recent years.
There never seem to be enough people playing rugby league. Governing bodies scramble for statisitics from other forms of the game like Touch and Tag to claim progress, but it is the 13-a-side, full-contact form of the game in which everyone would really like to see significant advances.
One issue is that many people are intimidated by the physical challenges of the game.
Another major issue is that the rugby union authorities seem to have commandeered Touch as a game of their own (despite its more obvious similarities with rugby league).
But a small group of people based in Ireland have devised a new ‘code’ which serves the triple purpose of being a good social activity, is more like full rugby league in its shape, structures and rules, and serves to introduce players to the game more effectively and realistically than Touch or Tag can do.
Former Oldham and Great Britain centre Des Foy, who now lives in Ireland, has played a central role in developing the new variant of the ‘greatest game’.
There are significant differences with the standard form of Touch, as well as with Tag rugby. Eurotag is much closer in its structures and rules to full-contact 13-a-side rugby league.
There are, however, refinements which make it accesible to those with no previous experience of the 13-a-side code.
“The main difference with Touch and Tag is how you affect a tackle,” Foy explained.
“In Eurotag you need to get considerably closer, and may have to deal with a fend, before you can complete a touch on the ball.
“The ball is the focus, which we found was an important idea to get into players heads, especially those who had come from a non-RL background.
“This makes the EuroTag tackle process much closer to a full RL tackle, which other versions of Touch and Tag lack.
“Other differences are that we have tried to keep all the key RL rules – a real play-the-ball rather than a step over, no dummy half restrictions, and no voluntary tackles (offensive touch).
“Kicking is allowed, and we even allow some slowing down of the ptb by allowing a defender to keep the ball clamped for a couple of seconds.
“We allow an optional marker, unlike touch, because of these rules our onside setting looks much more like the real game, unlike Touch where you tend to be backing off all the time til you get inside the 5m , and then at Touch teams try to exploit a slow retreating player to score.
“The point of the game is that it has three strands – a social game, a training game or as a competitive game in its own right, all with the emphasis being that it is distinctly rugby league.”
Foy is keen to stress the similarities between EuroTag and full rugby league, which makes the game ideal as a coaching tool as well as an introduction to the 13-a-side code.
“Playing EuroTag gives you transferable skills to the full game – and for current and ex-players their developed skills are much better suited than they would be to Touch,” Foy added.
“The skill sets of EuroTag and RL are very much co-dependant – unlike other forms of Touch.
“If you are good at rugby league, then you will be good at EuroTag, and if you are good at EuroTag you will be good at rugby league, apart from the finishing off of the full tackle, perhaps.
“EuroTag is not minimal contact, like touch is. We have codified another game – EuroTouch, which is designed to be played by mixed groups, with the same level of contact as Touch, but still keeping more of the RL rules that we have in EuroTag – it’s much more rugby league than FIT touch is.
“EuroTag wasnt designed for mixed groups, because initially it was a training game, but we have run several competitions where males and females have played the game.
“Agression can obviously be a bit of a problem with a mixed group, not just males and females, but mixed ages and abilities, as we have had players aged between 16 and 54 at our events.
“We have tried to control it by not allowing barging or dragging, or the fend to the face.
“The focus is on creating scoring opportunities, through offloads, footwork and passing, Not relying on size or power alone.
“The collisions in rugby league require players to focus on self preservation – not in a cowardly way – they are ‘putting their bodies on the line’ hoping that they come out of the collision better than their opponents.
“But this can override their ability to perform footwork and handling skills. If we throw players straight into the collision version of the game before they have really developed their footwork, handling and pass timing skills, they will forget the skills and be obsessed with the collision.
“Play Touch (EuroTouch obviously) and progress on to EuroTag and the skills of rugby league can be firmly established before the players move into the collision environment.
“And the big plus is that handling skills and footwork really help players take collisions on their terms, making it less likely that they will come off worst in the collision.”
The origins of Eurotag are very much a Foy family affair, with Des and his son Declan inventing and refining the game.
“EuroTouch and EuroTag are a collaborative effort between me Des Foy and my son Declan Foy. we were both born in Oldham,” Des explained.
“I played professionally for Widnes, Oldham, and Huddersfield, and also had a year with the Newcatle Knights where I was plagued with knee trouble and didn’t get to play first grade.
“Most of my games were with Oldham, and I played nearly 200 first team games there. I played for Great Britain in 1984 and 1985, including the 1984 tour, and played three Tests in total. I retired in 1993.
“As a family we moved to Ireland in 1995, I had already got Irish citizenship though my wife Patricia and that made me eligible to play for Ireland in the Emerging Nations World Cup, and a few games after that.
Declan and me are the first father and son to play for Ireland at Student level (I did a Sports science degree as a mature student in Tralee Institute of Technology 97-2002), ‘A’ level and full international level.
“Declan has been a player coach in Chester, and with South Adelaide Bulldogs, Kerry Kings and Cork Bulls.”
As ever in rugby league, there are political implications to the foundation of a new form of the game.
Part of the inspiration for codifiying the new game was the way, as Foy perceives it, that the rugby union authorities have moved in to take over the Touch scene in Britain.
“Part of the reason we codified EuroTag and EuroTouch was to provide distinct rugby league versions for mass participation, and improve the rugby league culture in Ireland and in other developing league nations.
“I am saddened to see Touch and Tag, which are so obviously versions of RL, being commandeered by Union, in Britain and Ireland and many other countries where RL is trying to establish itself.
“I am more than a bit frustrated that Union has stolen our thunder, and that participants in Touch will be counted under the RFU column despite the fact that they are playing a version of league.
“If you go on the Touch England website you will see that the spirit of pre-1995 rugby union is alive and welll.
“It states that by participating in Touch events that are not sanctioned by England Touch, it can result in a ban from all England Touch and FIT competitions – because of their ties to the RFU, England Touch cannot recognise Play Touch Rugby League as an officially sanctioned FIT competition.
“This effectively means that by playing Touch Rugby League, you can be banned by England Touch and not be able to play in any FIT comps – like the World Cup that was on in Australia recently – which had advertising around the ground that said ‘Play NRL‘!”
The nascent game is still in the process of forming an official governing body, but league nations from around the world have expressed interest in developing it on a more formal basis.
Foy is keen for as many people as possible to learn about the game, try it, and feedback about their experiences.
“There isn’t a well defined governing body to date, though it is part of the Rugby League Ireland (RLI) development plan – but we have also had interest from various RLEF member countries and places in England and Wales.
“We welcome anyone who wants to play the game to contact us and share their experiences.
“People can see videos of previous comps and posters for upcoming events, as well as the rules, and some coaching points for coaches who are using the game to prepare players for the full game.”
See EuroTag being played and coached in the video HERE.