S.A. Rugby Must Learn From Schools


Markotter magic.  The Paul Roos 1st XV and their devoted supporters share their emotions
after the 2016 match against Paarl Boys’ High, while proud proud rector Jannie van der
Westhuizen looks on from the left.  (photo courtesy of Brakkies Sport Fotos)

Best wishes for a rewarding 2017 to everyone, especially those young rugby players who will be making the transition from relative anonymity on a Saturday morning into the various 1st XVs around the Western Cape. 

It is my opinion that now, more than ever before, the spotlight will be focussed on the schoolboy genre as the search gets under way for a cure to all the ills which became so glaringly apparent at national level towards the end of last year.  

Why look to schools rugby ?  Bear with me while I put forward my case.

Not only is it historically appropriate since the game was introduced to the country by an educationist, Canon George Ogilvie, when he became the principal of the Bishops in 1861, but schools are arguably still the institutions in which the game is still played in its purest form.

It would have formed an integral part of the school curriculum for three separate, but closely interconnected reasons. 

It championed the philosophy of mens sana in corpore sano (a healthy mind in a healthy body) in that it represented a healthy activity in itself; it instilled in the pupils the valuable life lesson that, in any type of team situation, success can only be guaranteed by each constituent member performing his allotted part and, significantly, it would be coached by the self-same teachers that the boys had come to respect for their educational skills, thus tightening the bonds so crucial to the educational process.

Although it might not have been at the top of the good canon’s list of the benefits of participating in the sport at that time, it would in due course come to give every pupil something to which he could at best aspire or at least of which he could be immensely proud, a single standard around which the entire student body could rally.

The unifying factor of the school 1st XV plays a massive role in building and maintaining a school’s pride.  As I have discussed previously, the flagship team’s success has supplanted the increasingly diluted matric results as the stick by which schools are measured or with which they are beaten.

As a rule, the fervent loyalty and sense of belonging to something special is nowhere more evident than at the main rugby game of a day’s programme as players from the other teams, whether they have won or not, gather to boost the champions of their cause.  

After matriculation, those players who continue to play the game at the amateur level – simply for the enjoyment they derive from it – will still experience loyalty, because the clubs draw their support from a specific fan-base.

Otherwise, in its current state the sport falls some way short of a pass-mark in several of those criteria at the post-the schools level.

Ironically, neither of the main reasons for this situation is the result of a negative event.

Hindsight is 20/20 when one casts one’s mind back to the mid-1990s when South Africam rugby unwittingly found itself in the middle of a storm that has been perfecting itself ever since. 

Our new constitution formalised an equal, non-racial society at pretty much the same time that rugby finally embraced professionalism – a contradiction in terms when one considers that a sport originally was not something done for any reward other than the pleasure it gave the participants.

As the sport’s popularity has boomed and the number of coaches needed has meant having to bring in extra help from the outside, the once valuable bond between teacher and player has come under even greater strain as the emphasis has shifted to success at all costs.

Meanwhile, the political enforcement of a policy that rugby sides should reflect a more accurate racial representation has meant that there has been a scramble by those unions whose demographic doesn’t meet this prerequisite. 

With rugby historically the preserve of white people in South Africa, those provinces – and the schools within them –  that didn’t have a history of non-white rugby players suddenly had to come up with these players by the only means possible: getting them from those who do.

The provinces that form the Western Cape have always been in the fortunate position of being able to harness a rich rugby culture which includes all the races in the area, meaning that teams mirror the communities they represent without having to rely on resented imports to meet quotas.  The dreaded t-word – transformation – didn’t even reach local lips.

Unfortunately the growing tendency is for schools to appoint rugby “organizers”, too few of whom are former teachers, but all of whom soon realize that, judging by their pretty explicit job-descriptions, they aren’t going to be governed the gentlemanly (hands-off) rules that applied to their predecessors. 

Whether today’s coaches succeed in maintaining the teacher-pupil bond is becoming increasingly immaterial.  The ends justify the means, they say.  Who really cares how the team plays so long as they win ?

It is the answer to that question that illustrates the single biggest problem I see facing the local game.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold:  (WB Yeats: The Second Coming )

Although Yeats was not referring to rugby – or any organization for that matter – in this quote, it neatly supports my feeling that much of the blame lies with the administrators (the centre).

Justified no doubt by the word “democracy”, we have an unwieldy number of unions the leaders of whom hold the sole vote as to whether the status quo remains, the interests of the game be damned.

The unions are businesses so it’s not that unusual to find the top executives out of touch with what’s happening at ground level.  Come to think of it, it doesn’t seem such a good idea leaving them to run the finances either, given recent revelations.

Unions rush out and contract hordes of players, often with little consideration for their own specific needs.  After all, if they’ve got the guy on their books, then their rivals haven’t and the job of recruitment at least seems to have been done.

Results are paramount to these proponents of instant success so the long-term development of local talent isn’t a priority.  Again, the sole focus is on not losing: it’s no wonder one Super Rugby coach once stated that he had the best backline in the competition, but wasn’t allowed to use it.

The wealthier unions offer better salaries, so they get the better players, but – in the interests of democracy, of course – all teams must get a chance to play. 

“Four Premier League goals this year and they’ve all been scored by Englishmen !”  (Commentator on Watford vs Tottenham Hotspur match on New Year’s Day, expressing mock surprise that, given the huge number of foreign players plying their trade in the league, as many as four goals could be scored, two each by Harry Kane and Dele Alli, without a foreigner cropping up.)

The masses of players and team sponsors who need the opportunity to showcase their skills or get some kind of bang for their buck respectively mean the rugby public is subjected to endless competitions comprising teams which barely inspire the loyalty of their local followers. 

Political issues aside, how do you expect the financially-constrained public to rally behind a team which contains so few locally-developed players ?

Metaphorically speaking, many of these journeymen are little more than hapless animals who have been brought in from elsewhere because they are all that’s available to be thrown into the arena to match skills with the deadly gladiators employed by the wealthier unions.

The prime inter-provincial competitions are that in name alone as all the better players will  more than likely be away on Super Rugby franchise or international duty.  The spectators have no say in the hands they’re dealt and, despite SARU’s desperate prayers, they are not being fooled.  Huge empty areas are visible at even the highest profile games.

As if striving to develop the sense of loyalty seen at schools rugby level isn’t a hard enough task for the game’s administrators, there are several powerful attractions tempting players to ply their trade overseas.

The racial quotas demanded by those in charge persuade many a young star that his chances of upper-level representation and fame are scant.  Recognising this, foreign recruiters are approaching some local youngsters even before they have left school.

The higher value of overseas currency also proves enormously attractive to those intent on cashing in on a lucrative career that has a limited time-span.

Factor in the reputation South Africans have of being dependable, hard workers and it’s little wonder that our rugby players are the recurring flavour of the month.

A grim picture, maybe, but one from which the country’s schools rugby is largely exempt.

And, when it comes to the national stage in that particular age-group, the Western Cape can claim to be a cut above the rest: year after year our top schools and the provincial sides drawn from them feature either near or at the very top of the rankings. 

The huge schoolboy rugby fraternity remains fanatically loyal – everyone feels a tie to his old school.  And recurring success has made it hungry.  Go on out there and feed it ! 

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