School rugby: stop the money rot

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iol spt aug28 KES v Hillton College Independent Newspapers (File photo) King Edward High plays Hilton College. Picture: Etienne Rothbart

Entertainment in school sport has been replaced by money and the need to win, writes Tim Whitfield.  

Durban - According to Google, the 21st century purveyor of all knowledge, the definition of sport is “an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment”.

For Hilton College, being thrashed 67-7 in their annual 1st XV fixture against Glenwood this year certainly involved “physical exertion”, and both teams surely had loads of “skill”, but the “entertainment” was somewhat one-sided and the Midlands private school have now opted to stop playing rugby against the Durban powerhouse.

While it is something that is certain to provoke a lot of debate, for many it is not too much of a surprise and Hilton could just be the first of many which will choose less one-sided sporting fixtures in an effort to keep the entertainment and fun factor alive for their pupils, parents, old boys and benefactors.

Kearsney, arguably the province’s top schoolboy team last year, suffered the indignity of leaking a massive 86 points against Glenwood this year and there are more than a few old boys who wished that fixture had been cancelled, while Northwood and Port Natal also had more than 60 points scored against them by the all-conquering Glenwood 1st XV.

For the boys on the losing side in these fixtures the matches are no fun, and with Glenwood unashamedly pursuing a policy of winning on the rugby fields, the one-sided fixtures are sure to continue and even grow, and there is every chance in the future that other schools, which have chosen not to put as much effort and resources into their sports programmes, will also choose to withdraw from playing Glenwood.

It has to be pointed out, however, that Glenwood is far from the all-conquering behemoths that the four results mentioned above could indicate.

Glenwood lost four matches this season – all against out-of-province schools: Waterkloof, Outeniqua and Monument enjoyed victories over the top KZN school by margins ranging from a narrow five to 12 points, while one of the country’s top rugby schools, Grey College, enjoyed a convincing 29-12 victory. Even in local fixtures, Glenwood only beat Maritzburg College by a single point and Michaelhouse were within one penalty kick of drawing their match.

Hilton’s official statements have been carefully diplomatic: “The simple reason for this decision is that Glenwood’s fairly recent strategy has, in our firm opinion, now moved them into a different league.”

But what is that “recent strategy”? Clearly, Glenwood has pursued success on the rugby field with a bit more fervour than most, if not all, their rivals. In their efforts to compete with the top schools in the country (as opposed to the province) they have recruited players from other schools and other provinces, and have instituted programmes at the school which are designed to ensure success on the sports fields.

Their elite sports programme seems to be the best in the province and their top sportsmen lack very little, if anything, in the quest to achieve.

Look at their rugby results from under 14 level through to 1st XV and it is obvious their coaching staff has a clear and well-thought-out plan to work off and all coaches are contributing to their success.

So, what is the problem?

The critics claim the top sports schools in the country have turned sport into a semi-professional activity with some practices, without doubt, bordering on professional. For instance, player poaching and recruitment from some schools is rife with schools offering big incentives to players and parents for star pupils to change schools. If some of the rumours are to be believed, then some schools, particularly some up-country establishments, offer such big incentives it could be argued they border on child labour.

To go back to that definition of sport for a moment, it seems as if in too many cases the “competes against another” has completely overshadowed the “entertainment”.

The problem is certainly not limited to South Africa.

A report in the Australian Daily Telegraph recently highlighted a similar problem there with former Wallaby captain Nick Farr-Jones weighing into the debate after Scots College defeated Newington College 101-0 in a New South Wales 1st XV schools match.

“I don’t think it is great for the winner and I seriously don’t think it’s great for the losers and their parents,” Farr-Jones, a former pupil at Newington College, said.

“If I was a parent it wouldn’t have given me any pleasure.”

Farr-Jones said seeing the score- line made him immediately concerned for the safety of the players and the integrity of the competition.

According to the report, the one-sided victory “reignited the fierce debate about the growing professionalism of school sport in Sydney and the win-at-all-costs attitude of educators”.

The report said one senior educator maintained the thrashing could result in the “end of the competition” and claimed “Scots’ methods and dominance – allegedly achieved by offering financial inducements to lure the best players – had destroyed the very fabric of the event”.

Ironically, Newington College dominated last season, but conceded that it had offered generous bursaries to talented players, a strategy which it has stopped.

South African schools rugby is surely heading down the same path. Glenwood thrashing Kearsney by 70 points, or Hilton by 60 points, does no good to the victors or the losers.

As the Hilton v Glenwood debate continues – and it will continue for years to come, a quick look at the school sports websites and the two-year-old decision by Westville to not play Glenwood is still being rehashed every few weeks by bitter old boys and keyboard experts – attacking and blaming Glenwood is not the answer.

Depending on your affiliation, Glenwood will either be seen as the villains or the successful over-achievers who are constantly being wrongly accused because they are too good.

The problem is more widespread than just one school in KZN, and in reality Glenwood may not even be one of the worst.

As a headmaster of one of South Africa’s oldest schools writes in today’s Mercury (see below), “all schools need to stand and act together to get rid of this scourge. They need to act in concert against this cancer eating away at our schoolboy rugby. Agents must be severely censured and money must not be the incentive. Scavengers who ply their trade clandestinely for their own benefit must be exposed and eradicated. Large amounts of pocket money placed into boys’ accounts must be frowned upon as bribery to come to a particular province or school”.

The only way to return school sport to its rightful place is for all schools to come together and make sure they do what is best for the pupils. And they must act not only for what is best for their pupils, or for their old boys, or their parents, or their egos, but what is best for education and schoolchildren as a whole.

Clearly, that would mean a return to the “amateur” days of no player recruitment and no incentives to parents. That may mean school kids attend the school closest to their homes and a few top players would have to learn to lose the odd rugby match – and that may not be such a bad thing.

 

LETTER FROM A HEADMASTER

The following letter from a headmaster of one of South Africa’s most respected schools was sent in response to a query regarding players poached from his school earlier this year. It is written in his personal capacity and he requested his name not be used.

I have read the blog about the Hilton/Glenwood decision to call off all fixtures for next year. I sense the Hilton head is being very careful not to say anything unbecoming.

Now that the dust has settled, I feel it is appropriate to voice my concern regarding the “underhand” “dirty tactics” being used to entice immature schoolboy sportsmen, with the promise of great things to come, to schools. Sometimes this is done with the lure of financial rewards now and in the future.

My own school has, of late, had to deal with two of its top sportsmen being poached by two schools (one has since returned). We do accept that certain boys’ families market their sons as commodities in this “slave trade” market, but struggle to believe that schools are “hand in glove” with unscrupulous agents who have no feelings for, nor care for, the boy.

Surely it is time for Saru to get involved and lay down some clear guidelines to stop this pillaging and unsettling of young, vulnerable sportsmen who are dazzled by the attention and the promise of great glory. Cannot an instruction be given to all rugby boards that they must negotiate directly with the schools concerned if they are interested in any player. Do not make him move schools! Do not “spoil” him with attractive incentives. Allow the boy to complete his education first.

Headmasters who claim they are unaware of what is transpiring must be censured. How can any headmaster worth his salt claim a lack of knowledge of a boy who “suddenly” arrives at his school – boarding and school fees paid for? Does he no longer control intake, and arrange for bursaries or fee reductions? Are places in his boarding establishment up for grabs?

All schools need to stand and act together to get rid of this scourge. They need to act in concert against this cancer eating away at our schoolboy rugby. Agents must be severely censured and money must not be the incentive. Scavengers who ply their trade clandestinely for their own benefit must be exposed and eradicated. Large amounts of pocket money placed into a boy’s account must be frowned upon as “bribery” to come to a particular province or school.

I do not want to enter a war zone of debate. I simply want to state the facts and request that something be done. Too long have we ignored this problem. Too long has Saru refused to get involved. The old adage that “all it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing” is appropriate. The time to do something is now. Expose the perpetrators. Agents, rugby unions, schools and parents must play the game within the rules and these must be clearly defined.

I look forward to the day when boys will be left alone and schools allowed to deal with their own players in their best interests.

I write this in my personal capacity and do not speak on behalf of the school in this instance.

Yours in the interests of all our young sportsmen.

The Mercury

* Tim Whitfield is Independent Newspapers’ sports editor.

** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Newspapers.



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