South African schoolboy rugby must find its soul once again. The game must be reinvented to speak to the ethos of schoolboys and not the ambitions, ideals and expectations of professional rugby players.
Rugby academies, post schooling, is where the country’s elite 18- and 19-year-olds must gather.
Only a handful make the grade as professional rugby players, but a vast majority are subjected to the grind of being a professional attending a rugby academy - and it is being done under the guise of schoolboy rugby.
Winning has become an obsession in schoolboy rugby. Equally, is the attempt to create professional rugby players.
It may prove enticing to the player in his matric year, but those who go on to play at any level post matric show that it is everything but enticing.
So many young players I have spoken to don’t play anymore because of the draining demands of their schoolboy rugby experience.
They lost the desire to play the game. They lost their love of the game, and what was supposed to be the most enjoyable escape for them at school became a chore.
South Africa is not alone in this obsessive schoolboy professional age. New Zealand schoolboy rugby is a mess because of the professional pursuit among a select number of elite schools.
Player poaching, the narrowing of the player base to only a few schools, and the appointment of professional coaches are factors that so disturbed the leadership of New Zealand rugby that an official independent investigation was commissioned.
The results of this investigation led to the New Zealand Rugby Union acknowledging that professional rugby has poisoned the schools’ system.
The report detailed the pooling of talent into a few strong rugby schools as a significant factor in the decrease of numbers playing the game because of flow-on effects of, for example, uneven competitions.
From this, New Zealand Rugby announced the development of new guidelines on more “ethical and inclusive policies” for player recruitment.
There are as many as 31 recommendations to remedy schoolboy rugby.
Primary to this is stopping a select group of schools doubling as rugby academies that still play as schoolboys in a skewed competition structure.
It is very similar to South Africa, where a handful of schools have so obsessively focused on rugby that they have turned the schooling experience into one of an extended five-year rugby academy tutorial.
In Auckland, for example, 10 schools said they would boycott Saint Kentigern College in this year’s 1A competition due to their recruitment policy.
In South Africa, the Western Cape-based Wynberg Boys’ High recently announced they were cutting all ties with Paarl Boys’ High because of the poaching of a player.
KwaZulu-Natal’s Hilton College stopped playing against rivals Glenwood a few years ago because of the one-sided nature of the contest.
Glenwood was viewed as a rugby academy, with Hilton refusing to turn the school’s experience into one that concentrates on buying the most potent rugby schools’ talent and creating an elite first XV.
The New Zealand Rugby report quoted a professional coach, now involved in schoolboy rugby, saying that “in 10 years’ time we’re going to be dealing with the fallout from this those ideals of putting your hand up, not out, getting what you earn, they’re all going. Instead we’re developing mercenaries who say, ‘What’s in it for me?’
“This is far bigger than New Zealand schools' rugby we’re implementing and endorsing a system that’s corrupting the game by selling its soul.”
That coach could easily be talking about South African schoolboy rugby.
Keohane is an award-winning sports journalist and the head of sport at Independent Media