Opinionista Zac Elkin 11 June 2018

A fork in the road is coming for South African school rugby

If we continue on the current path in school rugby, many schools with proud rugby histories will very soon come to a fork in the road – pursue elitist rugby excellence, which is divisive – or lose relevance in the sport. We must avoid this.

July marks the midpoint of the South African schoolboy rugby season and provides the opportunity for those not competing in Craven Week to put their feet up for a few weeks of rest. However, the debate as to the direction South African schoolboy rugby should take in the coming years is afforded no such luxury and will undoubtedly rage on. Before you pile into that argument, here is a reproval of the path we’re currently on that, at the very least, warrants consideration.

In 1862 Canon George Ogilvie organised the first official rugby match in South Africa. Soon thereafter, various schools adopted the sport. Ever since, schoolboy rugby has gradually established it’s own identity in the grander scheme of South African culture and it’s become a rather prestigious identity at that.

In 2018 schoolboy rugby in South Africa is broadcast across a number of different platforms, not least on satellite television. The sport receives extensive media coverage and matches themselves are extremely well attended – in August 30’000 spectators are expected to attend a schoolboy derby at the Faure Stadium in Paarl. As a consequence of this, rugby has become a highly effective marketing and fundraising tool for schools. A school with a successful 1st XV is perceived to be a school in a good space. And with on field results come corporate backing, more funds, further coverage and better talent.

To feed this vicious cycle, drastic measures are being taken by certain schools to produce victories on Saturday mornings. Players are poached, forced to choose rugby over other sports, rugby academies within schools are being formed, external coaches are being employed, and doping has become commonplace among schoolboys.

If we continue on this path, many schools with proud rugby histories will very soon come to a fork in the road – pursue rugby excellence at the costs mentioned above or lose relevance in the sport.

This scenario must be prevented.

If not, a distinct divide will soon be created between elite rugby schools and the rest. It’s started to happen already – in 2015 a derby dating back to 1924 was discontinued because one school felt the other had “moved into a different league” in terms of strategy regarding player development and recruitment.

One of the key selling points of schoolboy rugby in South Africa are the charms of the many different schools currently involved. One school play without numbers on their backs because they believe rugby is a team sport, one school does a Hakka before kick-off, another school runs out with bag pipes bellowing in the background and so on and so on. The more of those institutions that fall into rugby obscurity the more monotonous the viewing experience will become. Here, less is not more.

Another key selling point of schoolboy rugby is the brand of rugby played. Uninhibited by the suffocating fear of losing that is part and parcel of the professional version of the game, schoolboy rugby players in South Africa are renowned for playing a daring, ball-in-hand game. The higher the stakes get and the more emphasis that is placed on winning though, the less likely that approach is to be continued. We need only watch the World Cup to understand the dour brand of rugby that is deemed to be effective in must-win games. The effects of this will be two-fold. We’ll produce less skilful players and the level of entertainment of schoolboy rugby itself will decrease.

Furthermore, the notion that early specialisation translates to success at the elite level has been disproved by a plethora of published research. Consequently, the argument that there is a demand for schools that act as rugby academies in order to improve the performance of the national team is redundant. The number of players who have represented the Springboks who achieved junior provincial colours in other sports is impressive. The list includes Schalk Burger, Victor Matfield and Patrick Lambie, to name but a few. Literature on performance at the elite level clearly advocates the playing of different sports at high school.

Finally, what about those who attend rugby schools pursuing excellence but don’t make the grade as professionals? It’s surely harder for an 18-year-old who has been mentored by a professional rugby coach (not a teacher), who has been isolated from his contemporaries, taken performance-enhancing drugs, seen himself on television and put on a pedestal to fit into society than it is for an 18-year-old who hasn’t?

The solution is not quite as clear as the problem and deserves a fully-fledged report rather than the closing paragraph here. If the fork in the road is to be navigated past, all the stakeholders need to find common ground. The way forward surely requires sharing. The sharing of television coverage, the sharing of wealth, the sharing of resources, the sharing of coaching, the sharing of talent and, most important, the sharing of winning. In the face of this challenge schools, parents, sponsors, pupils, media and the various governing bodies have the opportunity to send a strong message to the rest of South African rugby – co-existence is not only possible but also mutually beneficial. DM

Zac Elkin is a Sports Writer/Editor for TeamTalk Media

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