“There’s no gene pool like it in the world,” he said, clearly seduced by the stirring play at the St John’s College Festival. It was a scene played out across Joburg last weekend - at four schools in all - and repeated at Kearsney; dozens and dozens of schools involved. Meanwhile, in Paarl in the Western Cape many of the finest young players were gathered this week for the World Schools Festival, an initiative of Heyneke Meyer.
The game in the upper reaches may have its difficulties, but at this level, where boys are earnest without necessarily being cynical, the nursery is vibrant and the appetite among supporters of schoolboy rugby is substantial.
These festivals are logistical and planning triumphs, not least because the vast amount of work required to pull them off is carried out by committees of dogged mothers and fathers, teachers and helpers.
They man the stalls, pour the beer, flog the tickets and sell the memorabilia. Such folk are the rock upon which so many fine schools are built.
The rugby itself had much to commend. Former Maritzburg College old boy Joel Stransky, who helped with coaching at his Alma Mater, reckoned that the biggest theme to emerge from what he had seen around Joburg was the influence of coaching. The schools with the best coaches were strongly evident in their approach and execution. The schools with lesser coaches tended to struggle, outdone for imagination and tactical smarts.
Indeed, unlike in New Zealand and Australia where the coaching systems are slick and organised, the pool in South Africa constitutes both excellent and ordinary candidates. The preponderance of high-quality schoolboy players makes it possible for underwhelming coaches to hold onto their jobs, some of whom succeed despite their failings.
The one thing that is starkly evident year after year is the enduring power of the Western Cape institutions. So, while the rugby on show in Johannesburg was always entertaining, Paul Roos in particular produced a standard that was much superior to the other teams. They were fast, slick, strong and coldly efficient. Having six coaches involved with the first XV says it all.
As one insider remarked, “the Afrikaans boys play for contracts. The English boys play for fun.”
It was a throwaway line that had more than a ring of truth to it, no matter the lazy stereotype. Many aspire to play Super Rugby and beyond, and no doubt some will. The primacy of the Western Cape extended from St John’s to St Stithians, where SACS plundered Michaelhouse and Maritzburg College and Bishops put Michaelhouse to the sword.
Similarly, at King Edward School, Wynberg beat the hosts (Gauteng’s best side), put 80-odd past Muir College and scored 49 in their opener against Noordheuwel.
Against this backdrop, you could ask why Western Province and the Stormers are such serial under-performers when their stocks are so vast.
Unlike senior rugby, the freedom of junior-level rugby is richly manifest. Some teams do play as if by rote, a consequence of over-coaching, no doubt, but it was encouraging to see sides like Hilton and Rondebosch offering flair and exuberance. Because the rugby is often looser and more forgiving at junior level, there are openings and possibilities. Chances can be taken for those daring enough.
Spectator numbers were excellent across Joburg, even with inclement weather on some days. As long-time sportsmaster AD Norris remarked, the rugby is important, but the clan also gather for friendship, community and old boys’ camaraderie with the game serving as a vivid backdrop. It’s a heady brew that helps sustain the excellence of junior rugby. It is also partly why the game can largely withstand the wholesale carving out of its prime assets year after year: because the conveyor belt is so prolific. Just look at some of the youngsters Super Rugby has thrown up, like Damien Willemse, the Du Preez boys, Embrose Papier and RG Snyman.
In conversations with teachers and senior masters, the role of rugby as a shop window for schools was re-emphasised time after time. It explains why bursaries are dished out like calling cards by so many.
Whether it’s middling or outstanding, rugby still matters.