OPINION: Schoolboy rugby’s dark side
With backs stiffened, they march up and down, roaring commands, cursing fumbles. They’re a staple at schoolboy rugby matches all around South Africa, reminders that the game isn’t always as fraternal and as fun as it once was.
Whatever else we may think of schoolboy rugby, it hasn’t stood still. Those sepia memories of cold winter mornings, barefooted boys and clumps of dutiful parents have been replaced by sponsors, scouts, weight rooms and schoolboy contracts. It’s professional in all but name; its quaint Corinthian past a relic of a bygone age.
We thus shouldn’t be surprised at news of the birth of a new competition featuring many of South Africa’s top rugby schools, among them Garsfontein, Grey College, Monument, Paarl Boys, Paarl Gimnasium and Paul Roos.
Apparently other lesser schools will be used to plug the gaps, but this appears disingenuous, a cunning workaround to appease rugby’s bourgeois class.
It all starts up next year, but has already divided the establishment.
Some see it as affirmation of SA rugby’s extraordinary well of talent, which it is. These schools are already excellent, but this, apparently, isn’t enough. We already have a system where some schools refuse to play others on account of the disparity in strength. A consequence of this new event could see already strong schools become stronger still.
This, of course, all takes place amid an ostensibly educational environment. Physical activity is a vital constituent of any child’s development, but at school it must be secondary; an extension of a larger dynamic. In many of our schools this balance is out of whack. We know this because of what keeps reoccurring between old rivals.
Four years ago, Parktown Boys suspended fixtures against KES over issues of player poaching. Last year, SACS and Wynberg cut ties with Paarl Boys. Also, Durban High School severed its relationship with Glenwood earlier this year, also over claims of player poaching.
Meanwhile, in the Eastern Cape, traditional black schools Dale College and Queens College react to frequent raids on their stocks with a figurative shrug of the shoulders. Many of their boys come from impoverished backgrounds, so there’s a moral dilemma to this reality. Can they justify blocking a boy from moving if his parents are rewarded and the player is offered a full scholarship? It’s a troubling quandary. Sport is the shop window for schools, which is what has led to ruthless ambition to be bigger and better.
The ego-driven race to be number one has given schoolboy rugby an absurd prominence, especially when you consider that many of the boys are just 15 or 16 years old.
Among the many unintended consequences are doping, as reflected in a BBC report this week that focused specifically on SA schoolboys. The numbers are staggering but hardly a surprise given how much pressure there is on boys to be big and strong.
The focus now is almost exclusively on winning, often at the cost of enjoyment or improvement. Craven Week has always rewarded the two “most attractive” teams with a place in the main match, but parallel events, with a premium on winning, have popped up that now imperil the showpiece week.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with encouraging success and moulding future stars, but not when all perspective is lost and ambition becomes obsession.