I read Stefan Terblanche’s interesting article on SARugbyMag much earlier today.
A bit later in the day someone pointed out that a comment was posted stating that the “blog” was advertising shopping at the Grant Khomo Week. I think the more appropriate term would have been “highlighting” what is happening at the under-16 youth week. Anyways here’s my thoughts on the article titled – schoolboy rugby losing fun factor.
As things stand 99.9% of all the school students who dedicate their time and energy to playing schoolboy rugby won’t go on to become pro rugby players. Even those who play 1st XV rugby and are considered to be in maybe the top 2% of players their age in the world, the conversion rate isn’t that much better. The vast majority of students will probably find that other aspects of their schooling lives proved more valuable but even those of the many who choose a career path away from rugby will have fond memories of the teen years playing the sport and would have gained some sort of live lesson out of the disciple the sport forced on their lifestyle during that period of time. Rugby contributes to character building.
There is however a strong argument that high schools don’t need rugby to be successful business models that attract good students and produce school leavers that are ably equipped to deal with their next phase in life. However a reverse argument that age-group rugby in SA does not need schools to survive would not gain much traction.
There is a huge and arguably unavoidable overlap between secondary education institutions and pro rugby in SA. “Unavoidable” now because to separate the two would be disastrous for rugby as clubs and SARU could not afford to maintain school age-group rugby at the high level the schools are able to, not to mention that participation levels would probably diminish quite drastically if it was removed from the structured, disciplined environments that schools offer. It has become a very expensive sport for those who want to be very good at it.
By my reckoning SA now needs players to be ready for Super Rugby level at age 21. To wind back the clock to the 1980’s when I was a kid and there was either no such thing or little emphasis on gym works with scientific conditioning, supplements, pro coaching, extra time spent on training etc would mean that today’s 18 y.o. who wants to make the step up to pros, would just be too far behind to make up for lost ground. One has to remember that SA isn’t the isolated bubble of just domestic rivalries that it was in the 1980’s. These days everything is measurable on an international scale. The outside rugby world is moving forward at a faster rate than ever before and keeping pace is in itself a challenge. Also creating an environment where kids are encouraged to dedicate less time to speeding up physical development of their bodies only works when everyone is on the same page. The last thing you want is 80’s style little Johnny and his 14 compliant teammates to come up against even just two boys from an opposing team that didn’t read the script of not using all the benefits of modern living to improve their physiques. In a situation like this the potential for bodily harm and severe injury would be significantly higher. It would be a kind of Jonah Lomu effect. In the 1990’s Lomu was a freak of nature. He was very difficult to stop. Today a man of his size/speed/skill would still pose a significant threat but wouldn’t have nearly as much advantage over opponents and might also be shown up more for his own weaknesses. Not everything has to be an extreme example though. Rugby as a popular national sport in SA is under pressure for many different reasons and constant out of the box thinking to keep it in a place where millions still see it their favour sport to watch is going to be required because for many males there is a direct relationship between once playing the sport and continuing to love it.
When I was at boarding school, my iconic physical science once told us as a class that we should always aim to get 100% whenever we wrote a test or exam on his subject. The aim of playing a game of rugby has the same ultimate goal – it is to win. Yes you want to the kids to enjoy it but at the same time you should also want them to appreciate the purpose of the competition – the real character building meat and potatoes. Winning is like aiming to get 100% for a Saturday school science test and then getting a mark that’s pleasingly close enough to that objective. Winning isn’t just about pitching up, it’s about all the big and small things that get done to prepare for the occasion. That’s what’s driven the sport forward. As the level of competition has gotten better over the years, so too have the rival competitors, so too have the methods, techniques adopted. The main distinction for me now is : win (which we should all be striving to do) versus win-at-all-costs which is the ungentlemenly behaviour which has sadly made its presence felt in school rugby.
Winning incorporates things like getting up early to go to gym, training hard, following the correct diet, having specialist coaches helping you to up your skills level, building good relationships, having pride for your school and being willing to go the extra mile for team etc. , incorporating your natural ability with modern developments in science and technology to help achieve the desired outcome.
Winning-at-all-costs has those same wholesome elements as winning but adds in and condones in some form or another stuff like steroids, poaching, paying players in excess of their school requirement needs, allowing over-aged players, sacrificing important academic and other cultural time at school to focus solely on rugby, unsportsmanlike behaviour by sideline medics/coaches, encouraging forms of cheating be it via understandings with referees/ turning a blind-eye to players’ conduct/social development on/off the field when corrective action is required. There are probably other things you can think of as well.
I wanted to add that through this website I have the opportunity to communicate with many parents and I understand the concerns that Stefan Terblanche has raised as a parent himself. So in conclusion I thought it’s important to state that just like we’re now witnessing this massive growth in women’s rugby, nothing is set in stone in society. There is no reason why there can’t be another branch of rugby similar to that of union versus league diversion, one that gives rise to a variant of the game that perhaps creates the sort after 1980’s like environment with a style of play appeal and the safety comforts that a growing number of today’s parents want for their kids. I think I’ve mentioned it before, a version of the game with strict weight restrictions like tug-o-war contests – for example backs that weight a combined average of 70kg per player and forwards with an 85kg average would certainly reduce the impact of collisions quite significantly. Although it might not cut it for some spectators, who knows it could perhaps become something worthwhile.