Early versus late maturation

The rate of maturation and onset of PHV and puberty is highly variable in children. Early maturing individuals have been defined as a child starting their adolescent growth spurt 1.5-2 years earlier than a late maturing child (Lloyd and Oliver, 2012). It has been shown that eventual adult stature is not dependant on whether a child matures early or late but the early maturing child will gain a distinct advantage in physical performance. Early maturing boys can have up to a fourfold physiological advantage over their late developing peers (Canada Sport Institute, 2014). Rugby is a physical sport and so children who develop physically at an earlier stage are often seen as the more promising players. This can lead to late maturing children not being selected for squads or not getting as much high-quality coaching as the more promising earlier developing children.

There can however, be developmental disadvantages for a child that matures early especially in a physical sport like rugby. The early developing child could rely on their size, speed, and strength advantages rather than develop sound technical and tactical skills. This will be detrimental to their development as a rugby player because as they progress through the age groups and levels, the other children and adolescents will physically develop and the early maturing child will no longer have a size and strength advantage. With their size and strength advantage gone and with underdeveloped technical and tactical skills, the promising early maturing player may now be at a disadvantage.

While size and strength is obviously an advantage, it is important for the coach to take a longer-term view, especially in the early stages of a child’s rugby playing life, to ensure optimal development of their players.

To try and address this issue some rugby leagues and competitions are based on weight categories rather than the traditional age grades. If a player is outside the weight range they must move up or down a grade to play with players of a similar stature. This could be a very good way of promoting long term adherence and addressing some of the issues discussed above. Scottish Rugby use a combination of weight and grip strength measures to see if a younger player can play for the senior team. It has also been suggested that sevens rugby may be an outlet for the late maturing players to allow them to still play a variation of rugby while they develop and mature (WRU, 2017).