South Africa’s biggest schools rugby derby splits Paarl down the middle, writes MARIETTE ADAMS.
Paarl Boys’ High vs Paarl Gymnasium. Boishaai vs Gimmies. Galpille vs Bloedworse. Blue and white hoops vs Red and green hoops. North vs South.
Interschools day in Paarl is a momentous occasion. Every year there are a host of high-profile schools rugby matches around the country, but it’s this contest between two great traditional rivals that has, for the past century, stood above the rest.
Here we have a small town that splits into two for the sake of a schools rugby match. Families become foes, friends become enemies, good neighbours become bad neighbours and sometimes relationships are put on hold (just for the week).
Old boys, scattered across the globe, fly in to support their schools at various events throughout the week, creating a special buildup. It culminates in Saturday’s festival, which attracts 30,000 people to the Faure Street Stadium.
In 100 derbies to date, the biggest winning margin has been 20 points – in 1920 – when Gimmies won 20-0. Otherwise, the contests have been fairly close with the majority being decided by late heroics.
The period between 1916 and 1919 was a golden one for Gym, who claimed last-gasp victories with scorelines of 7-5, 3-0, 3-0 and 9-0. But a shift in power saw Boys’ High enjoy their share of edge-of-your-seat triumphs when they won 3-0, 13-5, 7-3, and 6-5 between 1923 and 1926.
In the years that followed, those sorts of results became the norm and the only certainty for supporters was the uncertainty surrounding the outcome.
However, this year is different; there is a clear-cut favourite and rightly so. Over the past 18 months, Boys’ High have notched up a 39-match winning streak, which includes a 16-10 derby win at Faure Street Stadium last year.
But coach Sean Erasmus says their stunning recent success will count for nothing on 6 August.
‘It would be stupid to say we’ll win because we’re on a winning streak. The unpredictability of this match is what makes it exceptional.’
Paarl Gym coach and former Bok wing Pieter Rossouw agrees.
‘Boys’ High are playing with unbelievable confidence and in any other match I’m sure they’d be overwhelming favourites. But derby day is different. It all comes down to which team can set aside their emotions and handle the pressure and expectations.’
Former Springbok lock Kobus Wiese and flank Corné Krige, and current Bok flyhalf Handré Pollard, have all experienced the highs and lows of derby day.
‘Paarl is literally divided in two every year,’ says Wiese, who went to Gimmies. ‘You pick a side and stick with it for the rest of your life. There is no middle ground. The rich tradition between the schools, but also the sense of camaraderie between old boys, makes it the best supported schools match in the world.’
Pollard, who matriculated from Paarl Gym in 2012 and made his Test debut two years later, struggles to find words to explain the derby.
‘What gives more relevance to the game is the fact that almost the whole country buys into this derby played in a small town. A personal highlight for me was living in the koshuis and experiencing the big brags and the old boys reunions. I played in two Paarl derbies, in 2011 and 2012, and can honestly say both are in the top five biggest matches of my life.
‘You can’t explain interschools week to someone on the outside,’ Pollards adds. ‘You have to be in the school to understand the magnitude of it all. At U16 level, my team lost quite badly and I never wanted to experience that hollow feeling again. Fortunately, I was privileged to win both my 1st XV derbies.
‘I do my best to go back and attend interschools as much as possible, just to experience the vibe and excitement again. Playing for the Boks is a big honour, but the derby is special in its own way.’
Krige, whose career was shaped by Boys’ High, says what separates the derby from other schools matches is the amount of pressure the kids are able to handle.
‘I played two interschools, losing in Standard 9 [Grade 11] and winning in Standard 10 [Grade 12]. Your whole year is made by one match and everyone playing in the main game is under intense pressure to go out there and keep their school’s name high. It’s a unique, but stressful experience.
‘I have massive respect for what Boishaai have achieved over the past two seasons,’ Krige adds, ‘but keeping the winning streak will create added pressure. At some point they have to play a bad game and lose. I’d prefer they lose before facing Gimmies!’
Paarl Gym captain Zak Burger says derby day matters more than any national ranking.
‘Most schools want to be No 1 in the country, but for us it’s more important to be No 1 in Paarl. The history and tradition of interschools creates an instinct to be No 1 in Paarl. We have a lot of respect for this special group of Boys’ High players and coaches, but on derby day the odds of anyone winning are 50-50.’
Boys’ High captain Salmaan Moerat is not ready to give up their Paarl crown just yet.
‘We’d like to be unbeaten for another year,’ he says. ‘The plan is to win all our remaining matches at any cost.’
Roll on 6 August.
Photo: Luke Walker/Gallo Images