Relative age effect
The relative age effect is a phenomenon that suggests that players born within the first three months after an age eligibility cut-off date, are favoured for selection and development as players (Roberts and Fairclough, 2012). This is linked with the issues discussed previously around the maturation and development of players. For example, if the age grade cut-off date in rugby is the 1st of September, then a player born on the 3rd of September could have a year’s extra development time compared to a player in the same age grade but who was born in August. As mentioned previously the fact that rugby is a physical game means that size and strength are often determinants of who gets selected for teams, academies, and elite development squads. The player who was lucky enough to be born just after the cut-off date will most likely have a size and strength advantage due to having more time to develop and mature.
Coaches could miss selecting very technically gifted players as they are not as physically developed and thus not getting the chance to play due to their date of birth. Lewis et al, (2015) found a relative age effect to be present in all age groups of Welsh junior club rugby U7-U19’s. Roberts and Fairclough, (2012) also found a relative age effect in youth rugby in the North West of England within the age ranges of U13-U16’s.
While the physical nature of rugby means that strength and size characteristics will always play a part in talent identification and selection, perhaps early talent identification should focus more on technical and tactical skill abilities. Physical maturation and development can eventually level out as they players get older reducing any size and strength advantage.