Sport and Recreation Minister Fikile Mbalula pledged to spend a quarter of his department's budget on school sport development. File photo: Courtney Africa

Player poaching, overzealous parents and coaches, and the flouting of rules has turned school rugby into an ugly sport, says Tim Whitfield.

Durban - In the past month, a schoolboy rugby player has been banned for using illegal, performance enhancing substances; a player dangerously returned to full-contact rugby, far earlier than the rules allowed after being diagnosed with concussion; at least one coach ran on to the field to argue with a referee; a player moved from one province to play for a top team as cover for an injured player, played in a couple of matches, and then returned home when the injured player came back into the team; and a hero-worshipped 1st XV player was seen clapping and ordering an U-14 player to “breek” (break) his opponents as one of those opposition players lay prone on the ground being attended to by medics after a dangerous spear tackle.

These are just some of the recent highlights of the local schoolboy rugby season.

There are also the normal weekly run-of-the-mill dramas, where parents and coaches shout and swear at referees, linesmen and rival supporters, where rumours about over-age players abound and where a multitude of unconfirmed stories about player poaching and steroid use are whispered on the stands (one currently doing the rounds suggests a host of boys from one school received an ineffectual two-week pre-season ban for widespread steroid use).

In recent seasons, schools have refused to play other schools, 23-year-olds on scholarships have been discovered playing in U-19 school rugby matches and touchline parents have been banned after punching and threatening to hit players from opposing schools (including one who held down and threatened a 13-year-old boy).

These are just incidents from KwaZulu-Natal schools, but it is no different in the rest of the country with two long-time traditional rivals from the Western Cape and Gauteng locked in a spat and refusing to play each other in any sport again over allegations of inter-provincial player poaching. An upcountry player was recently banned after he attacked and knocked out a referee.

Overseas, it seems it may be no better with a touchline dad in England photographed last month tripping a player from his son’s opposing team as he was about to score a try.

Other incidents in England include a dad who got so caught up in the match that he tried to take a quick line-out throw for his son’s team and an under-11s match in Birmingham which was abandoned when the fathers began brawling on the touchline.

It seems coaches, parents, teachers, old boys and players have completely lost the plot when it comes to school sport.

The benefits of a winning 1st XV are obvious.

For the old boys, there are bragging rights in the pubs and on social networks.

For parents, there is the vicarious honour and glory as they live their sporting dreams through their children.

The good players also get scholarships (and in some extreme cases, extra remuneration), which means there is a powerful financial incentive for having offspring who are sports stars.

And for the schools, there is a potent marketing tool as the successes are disseminated weekly in the results columns of newspapers, on social media and websites, and even in some cases, on television. After all, matric results only make the news once a year, so their marketing value is limited. This powerful cocktail of glory means school communities will go to great lengths to ensure a winning 1st XV.

The old boys and parents pump resources into schools in the form of sponsorship, donations, school fees and compliant innocent children, and the schools are desperate to attract the financial rewards of victory as well as the best players to ensure the victory cycle continues.

All of this means there is enormous pressure on the boys. This not only starts at high school 1st XV level.

The horse trading to attract the top sportsmen begins at primary school level, then the high schools go to great lengths to develop the talent on offer.

School sport in general – and rugby in particular – has become an arms race with the teenagers becoming the cannon fodder as the educational institutions, which are meant to have the children’s best interests at heart, seemingly prepared in some cases to do anything to win.

Most schools these days have dedicated academies and, in some cases, sport is no longer just an extramural activity. The identified sporting elite can spend up to three hours a day doing specific sports training, sometimes encroaching far into normal school hours with academic ambitions being relegated to catch-up classes with tutors.

Players are actively pressurised to bulk up with the help of supplements – many of which are condemned by the sports medical profession – and there is anecdotal evidence that some parents and coaches are complicit in giving children blatantly dangerous substances such as steroids.

There is no doubt this year’s schoolboy rugby player is substantially bigger than his 1990 counterpart and, in some extreme cases, the 1st XV forward packs have been measured to be heavier than the Springbok World Cup winning pack of 1995. A schoolboy rugby player of more than 100kg is no longer considered big; the teams at the recent Kearsney Festival averaged just less than five players a squad weighing more than 100kg.

It is time the question gets asked: Is all this in the best interests of the children?

The cold facts suggest professional rugby is not a viable option for all, only the very best. It is unlikely that more than about 25 to 30 matriculants each year in the entire country will go on to make a lucrative living from a notoriously short rugby career. That means if a child is not good enough to be selected for the South African schools squad, he will probably end up struggling to make a career out of playing rugby.

This then begs the question: Should parents gamble on their children’s future by choosing high schools based on sporting prowess?

Any clear-thinking parent would do well to at the very least ensure a plan B, and would probably do better instilling an ethos of good old-fashioned sportsmanship.

Wynberg headmaster Keith Richardson wrote the following in 2012, after the Western Cape media had highlighted problems in school sport: “Adults, including coaches, parents and referees, should be unified in ensuring the time-honoured ethics of sport are maintained on our school sports fields – to play hard, but fairly; to accept defeat and smile when shaking the hand of an opponent; to be competitive but at the same time, co-operative because without your opponent, there is no game.”

It is generally accepted that rugby was invented by schoolboy William Webb Ellis when he caught a soccer ball and ran for the goal line at Rugby School in England.

The schoolboy was later described by a fellow pupil as someone who was “rather inclined to take unfair advantage at cricket”, and the plaque at Rugby commemorating the invention of the sport graciously describes his actions as being done “with a fine disregard for the rules of football”.

To put it bluntly, William Webb Ellis was something of a cheat, who invented rugby by cheating in a schools sports match. Bearing that in mind, perhaps it should not be a surprise that the ethos of sportsmanship is being forced out of schoolboy rugby.

There is no doubt the benefits of school sport are massive in our playstation-dominated, cellphone-centric society and there is nothing wrong with a healthy rivalry that comes from schools competing on level-playing fields. But when parents, old boys, teachers and schools start adopting a win-at-all-costs attitude to the detriment of the pupils, maybe it is time to reasses the importance placed on school sport in the education system.

* Tim Whitfield is Independent Newspapers’ sports editor.

The Mercury