Schoolboy rugby stakeholders need to use the unexpected gap in the year’s playing calendar to come together and erase the blights on the game, writes DYLAN JACK.
After a long period of talks, SA Rugby on Tuesday confirmed the cancellation of a number of events in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Among the competitions cancelled were the SA Rugby Youth Weeks – including the U18 Craven Week set to be held in Port Elizabeth this year. Further, the Provincial U13 and U17 Sevens tournaments and the SA Schools tournaments have been written off.
Make no mistake, while it is a very necessary precaution during this time, it is still a massive blow for both schoolboys coaches and players. Coaches have seen the months of work they put into their pre-season preparation amount to very little.
Meanwhile, promising young future stars – particularly those in their final year of schooling – may have seen their hopes of earning a provincial contract dashed without being able to kick a ball in anger.
Quite what happens with the contracting of schoolboys is still up in the air. There may have been a privileged few who were able to earn a contract before the nation went into shutdown.
However, the question remains whether those contracts will still be honoured given the financial pressure South Africa’s rugby unions are under. Such pressure could leave unions struggling to offer contracts to players with potential as they have already had to make cuts to simply survive the year.
When students are able to return to their respective schools, it is likely that the emphasis will be on academics rather than sport. That is very much the right thing to do as there will be plenty of pressure to finish the academic year and ensure Grade 12 students can graduate.
Still, one hopes that when students are able to return, some form of schoolboy rugby can take place. Whether that is in the form of a friendly tournament or just crosstown derbies, I certainly would hate to see the Class of 2020 finish their schoolboy rugby careers without being able to touch a ball in the regular season.
However, it does not need to be all bad news. Much like the professional side of the game is doing, this can become a time for deep introspection over how the school side of our game currently operates.
To start, schools – particularly those traditional rugby schools – need to put some thought into how their recruitment strategies operate. The past decade has been littered with examples of schools falling out and cutting ties with each other over ‘player poaching’.
Far too often, schools have put their own self-interest and the development of their sports programmes ahead of the interests of the players they look to recruit, often overlooking whether a move to a new school or new province is in the best interests of a schoolboy.
In fact, this has reached a frankly ludicrous extent, with high-profile schools poaching 13-year-old boys entering their first year of high school. If a schoolboy already has the opportunity to attend one of South Africa’s top schools – with a good sports programme that would allow him to develop – what is the point in trying to recruit said schoolboy?
Going further, the U13 Craven Week as a whole needs to be reconsidered. Sports scientists and coaches alike have argued for the dangers of early talent identification. If the week was played in a friendly atmosphere with nothing to gain or lose, then it would be fine.
Unfortunately, it’s just not that way as scouts use the event as an opportunity to get ahead in the talent ID game. Far too much is on the line with this week and it can be argued that it already creates an exclusionary pathway based on data that is not a great predictor for what a sportsman may go on to do.
Call me optimistic, but if school governing bodies and coaches can see this an an opportunity and put their differences aside to enter into conversation, we may see schoolboys rugby come out of this period all for the better.
Photo: Ashley Vlotman/Gallo Images