The highlight of the weekend’s rugby for me was watching my 11-year old grandson play on the right wing for Cordwalles Prep in the Prep Schools’ Tournament at St. John’s, Johannesburg. The preparation of these teams by their coaches was highly impressive. Every aspect of the modern game was carefully drilled. Matthew Bray, my grandson, is small in stature. In the match against St. Stithian’s Prep he ‘marked’ a boy who was six foot three inches in height and looked 16 if he was a day. I’m sure his birth certificate has the correct data but people around me speculated that his parents may have been a tad tardy in getting to the registration office after his birth. His three tries made the difference between the two sides. Competition was intense, the standard high.
After another game I heard the headmaster of a losing team giving his players a pep talk which revolved in the main about ‘believing in yourselves’. They had come back well in the second half of their match. The headmaster believed their better showing was directly attributed to their attitude. (My more prosaic take was that in the second half, they played slightly ‘downhill’ and had the wind behind them.) Still, this man was educating his boys on one of the eternal virtues : self-belief. Good stuff.
I found myself wondering how many of these lads would ever go on to play rugby after they left school and, some of them, after playing at tertiary institutions. Given that the modern game at adult level is professional in every sense, the ratio of those who try and those who actually make it is wide. You see, I had heard a brilliant talk at the Johannesburg Sportsman’s Club the week before by Tom Hamilton, headmaster of St. Alban’s College, Pretoria on ‘schools rugby’. Like many in the audience, I was, by turns, intrigued and horrified at what is happening in schools and the decline in standards of sportsmanship and basic values surrounding our great game. In a sense, one can argue, it’s become a tragic farce. Who’s fooling who?
We were told that the Bulls have 243 players contracted to them. That means 1 in 10 will probably ever get a game. They are contracted, according to Mr. Hamilton, to stop them being poached by other franchises. The Sharks have 203 contracted. So what do the ‘non-players’ do? I discussed this with Hugh Bladen (former Transvaal player and Junior Springbok) and Brian Murphy (former Rhodesian great). We assumed these youngsters all train hard and probably drink hard. Who knows? It seems crazy and very wrong somewhere along the line.
Tom said his headboy had received an offer from a franchise and told to ‘take these three substances’ which the boy said he knew were ‘doubtful’. After discussion with his headmaster and his father, he decided to reject the offer and enjoy rugby at university and then move on. (I had, some time before, heard from Guy Pearson, Headmaster of Bishops and former Rector of Michaelhouse, that in the Western Cape, four of Bishops’ opposing schools refuse to have their players tested for illegal substances. Those who are happy to have their players tested are Bishops, Rondebosch, SACS and Wynberg. There are probably others, but some very powerful rugby schools refuse. Why? What do they have to hide?
So where are we with school’s rugby? I’d say in desperate straits. Do I really want to watch schoolboy packs of forwards who weigh as much as a Springbok pack in the 90’s because of illegal intake of ‘stimulants’? Should I worry that talented rugby players from primary schools are now routinely approached with offers of sports bursaries? There’s no law against it. Schools are entitled to recruit any pupils they wish to. But I don’t find schools scouring junior schools for talented tennis players or swimmers or hockey players. Some cricketers I’m sure. And then I think, one can play tennis into your eighties and swim for even longer so why are they regarded as relatively unimportant? How many Old Boys regularly attend their old school’s tennis derbies? Don’t answer; it’s a joke. But now I’m of course thinking as an educationist not merely as a rugby fanatic.
This issue is not new. Before I arrived at Michaelhouse in 1978, there were rumours that on Old Boy was approaching the entire Natal Craven Week players of 1977 to come to a post-matric year on bursaries. I cannot vouch for the story. I was also told a Hilton College Old Boy was in communication with an All Black star about paying the latter to coach the Hilton College Ist XV. Later five brilliant Grey College rugby players miraculously decided to do a post-matric at Michaelhouse. Who paid their fees?
I moved on to Kingswood College in 1987, introduced a ‘Bridging Year’ for pupils who didn’t feel ready to go to university full time. Rhodes University (how long will that name last?!) entered into a mutually beneficial arrangement where we would house and tutor BYs as they were known, they would attend lectures at the university and play sport and attend cultural clubs at the schools. We went from one student doing university studies in 1987 to 56 doing tertiary courses in 1988. The Bursar and Council were very pleased.
But some OKs and supporters saw a gap and took it. They recruited – without my knowledge – talented rugby players and we ended up with ten BYs in the first XV. This team beat our traditional rivals St. Andrew’s College and Graeme College. With about 230 boys in the school, we were then strong at Ist XV but very average in all other levels. (Nothing wrong with a strong first team but what were we really proving?) Grey High School in Port Elizabeth chose not to play us with their overall high school enrolment of 800 boys. Great! What vision! What character! (I hope the sarcasm is obvious).
The interesting thing about all this is that there is nothing to stop schools from recruiting whom they wish. But it’s rugby that gets the stick! In our Kingswood College 1988 Bridging Year we had the top tennis player from Michaelhouse, Chris Folker, four interprovincial athletes, some good provincial swimmers from other schools, three very good cricketers including Neil Johnson ( who went on later to play for Zimbabwe in the World Cup and score a century against Australia).... I never heard one word of criticism from another school about these stars in other sports. All the criticism was levelled at the rugby players who came to the school.
Fast forward to a few years ago when I raised some eyebrows speaking at a donors’ dinner at Kingswood and made the point that, in my opinion, rugby ‘’is not the most important sport at Kingswood. The most important sport is the one your child plays.” Hell, I mean it’s not difficult to work out. Your own child’s interest and participation in a sport of his/her choice should be the one a parent is most concerned about – not about other people’s children playing in the school Ist XV. The two things are, anyway, not mutually exclusive.
So what sort of people judge the worth of a school on the results of their first team rugby team? In my nine years as Rector of Michaelhouse, I was not asked once by parents considering sending their boys to the school, about the strength of our rugby; not once! Same at Kingswood. But, the sad thing about the Kingswood College Bridging Year and the consequent recruitment of rugby talent is that some boys who had spent their entire career at the school lost out. Bob Ford of Fort Beaufort, an OK , came to see me one day. He said, “Well done on the Bridging Year, Neil. It’s done great things for the school but I have a personal problem.” He went on. “My son David is not a strong academic scholar but his dream has always been to play prop for the first team and he’s good enough. But with these older, more gifted players coming in, his dream has gone.” What could I say?
Despite my reservations, nothing is going to change now. I suppose I don’t mind really because some good rugby, as always, will be played. But I shall wonder about ‘testosterone-fuelled’ forwards gambolling about our fields and wings who could slot in at lock without the blink of an eyelid. But as someone who has spent his whole life in education, I do worry about priorities and the Old Boys of our schools who betray an attitude towards rugby and the worth of an education in terms which are disturbingly narrow. These fanatics went to school but, I have to ask, what have they learned? Were they certificated but never educated?
Oh, Lord, this piece is supposed to be about the Super 15 matches of last weekend! Well I’m sure most of you watched the Lions in magnificent form and courage against the Bulls, the Brumbies far too good for the Cheetahs, the Blues fail again and so on. You’d have seen the scores in the paper, so I won’t repeat them.
In sum, I love rugby, I played the game for twenty-five years, at provincial level for twelve years, in three internationals for Rhodesia against the British Lions, Argentina and Australia, coached the game at first team level for fourteen years. It’s a wonderful game. I just wonder now whether I’ll be advising my talented grandson to opt for rugby as his winter sport when he goes on to high school.