MARK KEOHANE says South Africa’s schools rugby structures need to be reassessed to prevent lopsided results.
Schoolboy rugby in South Africa is rich in tradition and always in a healthy state. There is a purity about Saturday mornings watching schoolboys play this beautiful game.
But with so many youngsters wanting to pursue professional careers, the dynamics within the schools’ structure has changed dramatically in the past decade.
The SA Schools side of a year ago, per player, was bigger in size than the Springbok team in South Africa’s 1992 return from international sporting isolation.
The demands on players are huge for those with ambitions of academy scholarships and a future as a professional rugby player. It has meant a growing gap between the elite and it is a gap that will only increase.
I don’t know if there is any way to curb it or if it is an outdated and romantic ideal to curb it, but it is never healthy for the state of schoolboy rugby when so many matches produce such lopsided results.
Alternatively, it should be accepted that there is a top-10 schoolboy structure that doubles as an academy league, in which these teams play each other and don’t participate in the traditional Saturday leagues.
There is no value in a school’s 1st XV taking 70 points and every one of the 15-plus schools in every age group taking a beating.
This should not be read as an attack on what is being produced within those schools that consistently excel every year and produce wonderful rugby players who transition seamlessly into the professional structures.
But schoolboy rugby needs a reassessment of its own structures, so as to readdress the imbalance and also encourage greater participation from youngsters who play each Saturday knowing it’s in a strength versus strength environment. There can be no enjoyment knowing that each Saturday morning coincides with an on-field beating.
I don’t know the answers, but I do believe that schools 1st-XV coaches across the country should be debating how best to maximise the talent that will make that progression to professional athlete and how to enhance a schoolboy rugby ethos that ranks among the healthiest and strongest in the world when it comes to player numbers and also mainstream interest.
There is huge interest in schoolboy rugby and we’ve seen this at SARugbymag.co.za since the launch of this dedicated schools rugby website.
The idea behind the site was to showcase the many teams in this country who make up the strong fabric of our schoolboy rugby. The goal is that the schoolboys, coaches and players drive the content and tell their stories. The digital age allows for this.
Each province has unique qualities and traditions and while the various unofficial ranking systems make for heated debate each week, there is no way to accurately rank schoolboy teams nationally outside the top five schools whose rugby presence has always been extremely potent.
I don’t believe in a schools ranking system, but I do believe in the strength of schoolboy rugby because of its value beyond a result.
Schoolboy teams often play their most entertaining rugby at the many festivals that add such value to the schools rugby schedule. I’d like to see more festivals and local league match-ups that support the playing of the game in which victory is not a given when the playing schedule is confirmed.
The idea of a Super 10 or 12 has merit because the game has evolved to such an extent and the players, to make it as professionals, have to meet certain physical demands.
But it isn’t the top 10 or 12 rugby schools in South Africa that make rugby the attraction it is to so many on Saturday mornings. It’s the mass numbers from 13-100 whose motivation has to be peaked and it’s those schools whose desire to play the game is based on an amateur-type ethos where winning each Saturday is always an option (because strength plays strength) but that the bigger picture is way bigger than a 9-6 win at-all-costs result.
I’d want to hear from those passionate about schools rugby, from the coaches, to players, to parents. Please don’t read this as knocking the excellence of the elite schools, but rather as a question about how we preserve the sanity and future of those who will never have the players or the resources to be in that national top 10.
Photo: Kulu Ferreira