Launching the Vikings. Labori scrumhalf Gareth Sauls (9) chips over the Bosmansdam defensive line
during his side's 29-10 home Interschools victory on Saturday 19 August 2019. (photo: supplied)
We have been told more times than we care to remember that “Nothing will ever be the same again” after the shock and aftershocks of Covid-19 have - hopefully - left us to pick up what is left of our considerably chastened existence.
I don’t doubt that.
I’m no pessimist, but the effects of the pandemic, especially on as large a slice of our lives as schoolboy rugby, are going to be felt for a long time to come. The following represent some thoughts on how 2020 is set to impact, not only on the Grade 12s, but also on other rugby players throughout the high schools system.
One can only feel sorry for this year’s Matric class. All their dreams and rites of passage, not to mention their Matric farewell, have gone up in (illegal cigarette) smoke and their anxiety must be reaching, er, fever-pitch as they realise just how the time before their crucial final examinations shrinks and even seems to change from day to day.
Not only are they being deprived of the chance to pull the coveted 1st XV jerseys over their heads, but they are also missing out on the chance to showcase their skills at the festivals and inter-provincial weeks, the greatest opportunities they have of still impressing scouts.
Furthermore, when they leave school at the end of the year, they will be entering a depressed market, one in which most industries will definitely be focussed on trimming their employee corps to suit their shattered finances, so the future looks pretty grim.
Unfortunately, for the rugby player, post-Matric is not an option for two reasons. Firstly, no learner who has written his Matric exams is eligible to represent his province at either of the National Under 18 weeks. Secondly, opponents will simply refuse to play against schools who utilise such players. It’s a lose-lose situation.
However, if a current Grade 12 learner only turns 17 in 2020, there’s very little to stop him from asking to be allowed to return to Grade 11 with immediate effect, meaning that in 2021 he would (a) be Under 18, (b) in Matric and (c) have the benefit of a hopefully far less interrupted final year of schooling.
Given the uncertainty regarding the timing of the final exams for this (maybe even early next) year, it seems quite reasonable that such learners would find their requests regarded favourably.
Like it or not, money does make the world go round and you don’t need me to tell you that there is a colossal shortage of the commodity worldwide right now.
Sport has been hit just as hard as every other sector. Just turn to the sports news on DSTV and you will see the mind-boggling sums national sporting bodies are haemorrhaging, primarily because they are receiving no broadcast income since safety protocols dictate that the players have not been allowed, until very recently, to be seen, let alone play, together.
Only a fool would be misguided enough to think that the effects aren’t going to be felt at grass level.
So, just where will the impact be felt most?
Hardly any school can survive these days without employing extra teachers in SGB (School Governing Body) posts. The bigger - and generally, as a result, more affluent - the school, the more SGB staff it will employ, keeping classes manageable in terms of size, which directly equates to education’s equivalent of the Holy Grail: more individual attention per learner.
It is not far-fetched to suggest that, on average, at least 30% of parents at most government-funded schools are going to have been severely financially impacted by the pandemic. This means fewer of them will be able to fulfil their obligations. No problem, mum and dad, it’s common knowledge that it is virtually impossible to deny a child his place at school because of non-payment of school fees.
Thus, with schools being first and foremost academic institutions, laying off these fee-funded teachers is not negotiable for any headteacher.
So they trim where they can - on extramurals. Which group of extramurals attracts by far the most learners ? Sport.
Coaches in General
Can they afford to cut costs here ? Of course. There is no schools rugby this year - whatever some clown up in Gauteng may have said - or any other sport, for that matter, especially when you bear in mind the dreaded second spike in the infection, expected in August/September.
So one can start by shedding the external coaches and work one’s way up to the poor Sports Organizer, at this stage about as useful as an admiral in the Swiss Navy and whom they are well aware is currently counting grains of rice on his office floor to keep himself occupied.
Hopefully, these gentlefolk get spared the axe, but, to use a bridge metaphor, even an extra Grade 8 English teacher trumps an idle Sports Organizer.
So to our favourite sport.
Directors of Rugby and Scouts
Following the train of thought above, these often hugely-salaried positions will be virtually impossible to justify, irrespective of their track records, because (a) there’s no rugby for them to “direct” and (b) no money to spare to employ them. If there still is, expect a lot of questions about skewed priorities.
In the same boat, you have the scouts. They might find that all they’re left to do is turn their hands to tying fancy knots, acquiring meaningless little patches and spending quality time in tents over weekends and holidays.
Recruitment between schools
In South Africa, if not the entire world, schools rugby, most particularly, at 1st XV level, is the most fiercely competitive sport of them all, one’s flagship team’s success being the most reliable gauge of an institution’s success.
Deny it if you like, but a lot of money goes into recruiting players to bolster one’s senior team, especially with the relative mass participation that is going to be required by schools wishing to compete in the pipe-dream High Schools Challenge, if it ever happens.
If schools persist in using money, by whatever means it is acquired, to enhance their rugby teams, rest assured the parent body at large is going to be quick to complain, particularly when it means their children have to share a classroom with - gasp ! - 40 other youngsters.
Bursaries are already facing the axe, with even provincial educational authorities already taking a very close interest in at least one instance. Expect much more of the same.
Traditionally, the majority at this level is taking place more and more early.
The provincial Under 13 and Under 16 weeks tend to attract the most interest. Some unions are prepared to leave it as late as the Under 18 weeks, while it is not unheard of to find provincial scouts at, for instance, the final WP U16 and U18 trials. The major festivals are also fertile ground for the men with the pens.
But, hold on, none of these took place this year. It will be most interesting to see how the generally lily-white inland unions manage to fill their racial quotas for the foreseeable future.
Needless to say, Facebook is abuzz of late with players identified last year putting pen to paper for the various unions. With the stringent financial strictures facing them, it is impossible to see provinces adding any youngsters, especially untried ones, to what are going to be bare-bones squads.
While congratulating these young gentlemen on their success, one needs to sound a word of caution. They are entering a buyer’s market - one in which supply vastly exceeds demand.
It is thus absolutely critical that they do not leave school without a Matric certificate, which will either provide something for them to fall back on or which qualifies them for admission to tertiary education when their sporting careers come to an end.
Very early in the pandemic a French club stated that expensive contracts for unproven imports would be severely curtailed, although the same does not apply to established senior provincial or international performers.
Now, remember the hoo-hah that hit the airwaves when a couple of prominent youngsters, one of them from the Western Province, were contracted straight out of school to play in France ? Well, there was a deafening hush when they summarily arrived back in Mzansi over the last few weeks.
No-one is saying they weren’t good enough, but - and be sure that this is a refrain you will hear repeatedly in the next year or two - the French aren’t alone in thinking that their local talent needs to be nurtured first, plus, hey, it’s much cheaper, too !
Rugby is a contact sport like no other. Throughout the game players are scrumming, rucking, mauling and tackling each other. This physical aspect is one of its greatest attractions. Forget the cliched arguments that we’ve all grown tired of in recent years, the pandemic has just gifted those parents who have been considering alternative recreational options such as hockey and soccer the perfect argument for dissuading their offspring from the physical fifteen-man-a-side game.
The new rules limiting contact points such as scrums, rucks and mauls and substituting free kicks and the like might sound like a wonderful idea, but, without those contact situations, many will argue the sport will never be the same.
Let’s put it this way, take the crash-boom-bang out of rugby and I’ll put good money on a side like Schoonspruit, who always take the field with a major weight disadvantage and thus base their game-plan around avoiding unnecessary contact situations, being in their element. Under the new laws, I’d back Vos de Jager’s boys against most schools, apart from Bishops, the nearest side to them in style that I can think of.
Oh well, you lose on the swings, you win on the roundabouts, I suppose.
The money for recruitment comes from various sources, one of which is the highly lucrative festivals that pepper the first half of the season.
Sponsors have been forking out enormous sums for the best advertising opportunities alongside packed fields, with the live broadcast of games at some events doubtless adding substantially to the outlay required.
But this year there has been no bang and thus no bucks. How do you think the now financially-constrained CEOs are going to justify continuing to plough hefty sums into such ventures, quite possibly at the expense of shedding faithful employees?
Parents, too, might well be reluctant to allow their youngsters to travel across the country to unfamiliar places where they might be exposed to new infection. Fear is like wildfire: once it starts, it’s difficult to control.
Not even language is escaping unscathed as several words have taken on new, much more ominous meanings.
For instance, not that long ago the word “social” brought to mind a noisy weekend evening in the school hall, “distancing” was what you figuratively did from an acquaintance who started spouting unacceptable statements, “screening” was what got done at the local movie house and “Kawasaki” was a popular brand of Japanese motorcycle.
So, why should schoolboy rugby escape the ravages of the pandemic ?
“The new normal” - probably the most bone-chilling example of innuendo yet - is going to be anything but.