I have spent the past two Saturdays observing schools rugby, initially as an impassioned father in the morning run of the eight and nine year-olds, and then as a more curious observer in the afternoons, at some of the country’s premier schoolboy institutions.

What occurred to me, during this marathon of musing, is that white-line fever starts in parents long before it gets to players.

More than once, a startled little boy shot a look to his father on the side of the field, as daddy’s dearest intentions crossed the line, and he became that parent.

We all know that parent. He (or, occasionally, she) is the one whose career ended before it started, but he feels compelled to be the referee’s uninvited assistant officiator, and is quite gung-ho about pointing out every error that the man with the whistle makes.

He/she is also the parent who thinks that they could do an infinitely better job than the coach, despite not having made a tackle in anger in over a decade. It’s these types that suck the life out of the game for our future stars, long before they explore their full potential.

For all of us, participating in any sport used to be that one sanctuary from the serious bit of schoolwork, the place where the dreams of maths class turn into beautiful reality, as you go into battle with your best buddies. The stakes, at primary school, were almost non-existent. Win or lose, you learn something more about the game and about yourself.

Those mini battles built character, and there was camaraderie in the sharing of oranges after the game. Sadly, with the modern practice of schoolboys who are virtually professionals by matric, much of that joy is suffocated out of sport the minute they show a shred of talent.

Those parents turn every practice into a chore, every fixture into a Test match, and every mistake into a funeral. I have seen several little boys already dreading the obituary that they would have to sit through on the ride home.

That was only ratcheted up in the afternoons, at high school level.

While boys grow into young men with muscles and intentions of becoming something in their chosen sport, those parents almost seem to be local versions of Benjamin Buttons; grown men whose sensitivities and social filters diminish, so desperate they are to see their sons succeed.

Too desperate, in fact. Coaches wince at the sight - or sound - of them, and even other parents tend to sidle to the other side of the field, lest they be implicated by association. Those parents develop an increasingly thick skin, and one can only assume that it’s because they are adamant that they are grooming a future Springbok, or Protea, or Bafana star.

So, supposedly, they are justified in screaming at refs, admonishing coaches, and questioning everything that goes wrong inside that white line.

Amidst all this gloom, I did see a ray of sunshine, though, through a team of matric pupils, who call themselves the Dream Team. They are the 7th team in their age-group, and match day is an opportunity for them to enjoy the last few weekends they will have as schoolboys, often on far-flung fields, far away from the unforgiving glare of the main field.

They couldn’t care less about stats, structure, and being perfect. And yet, as it turned out, most of them are straight A students, destined to be brilliant doctors, lawyers and engineers in a few years.

They are the lucky ones, because they get to leave the game as it first found them, full of unbridled joy and the bliss of Saturdays spent in the company of buddies.

And, of course, you won’t find any of those parents on the sidelines.

That’s the trick, perhaps.

Sunday Independent 

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