Friday, 9 August 2019

Don't blame SA's soccer woes on the rugby-playing schools

The short, sharp Joburg high schools soccer season is under way.

Despite having the richest league on the African continent, the best stadiums and facilities, and the only continent-wide TV broadcaster, our national team is ranked near the bottom of the pile, it sometimes doesn’t qualify for the continental championship and often loses (like it did last week) to countries like Lesotho.

And It’s still, unbelievably, being said by those who are trying to explain why this is so, that one of the reasons for this debacle is that the well-resourced schools in the country don’t include soccer as part of their sporting programme and that some of them forbid the playing of the game by their boys.

They claim that our so-called top schools – independent and former model C, I presume – are all rugby institutions and they don’t practice the round ball code.

That’s nonsense! Soccer isn’t played at many Afrikaans medium schools, sure, but how many of the total number do they make up? Let them pay rugby I say, and you don’t hear many complaints when the products of those institutions shine for the Springboks in international rugby.

The fact is that soccer is big at most of big traditional rugby-playing schools, and it is of course played at the vast majority of the schools across the land. So, the problem is not one of access to the game, it’s one of not optimally using the school system as the major developmental nursery the way that rugby, does.

This weekend the annual St David’s Challenge Cup tournament takes place. It isn’t the biggest, or the only, schools tournament taking place at this time of the year, but there will be 32 school teams in action, under-19 and under-15. That’s close to 600 boys, and 90 officials. There will be 96 games played over three days, on quality fields, each one with qualified referees assistants and with every player wearing the proper team kit.

It’s the 17th time it’s being staged and they are close to getting the running of it like clockwork as is possible with an event of this size. Some teams may get stuck in the Joburg traffic, the weather may intervene, but I can pretty much guarantee that the grand final will kick off at 3pm on Sunday, as scheduled, followed by a prize-giving at which the winners will receive the spoils, and the also-rans will be given their due for the part they played in making it the tournament that it is.

It’s an elite sporting event, but it’s also an educational exercise – that’s important.
There are also tournaments at Kloof High School in KwaZulu-Natal, at Hudson Park in East London, at Grey College in Bloemfontein, at Joburg’s Waterstone and St Peter’s College’s, among others.

The participating teams will typically play five to six games over three days, which gives them as much game time in the four week-odd season as they would get in three months of weekly fixtures.

And there are weekly interschool fixtures as well. The biggest difference between these school and most of the soccer-only ones is that soccer is a mass participation activity and weekly games have to be arranged for multiple teams in all the age groups.

Down in Durban, it’s massive. When, for example, Westville Boys’ High plays Glenwood (both rugby powerhouses) it’s not unusual at this time of the year to have 25 soccer games on the day. It’s not something matched by the competitions organised by the SA Schools Football Association (Sasfa).

There’s something wrong with football in South Africa, that’s clear. But the problem doesn’t lie with the rugby-playing schools. If you don’t believe me, go down to St David’s Marist Inanda this weekend.

Sunday, 21 July 2019

The real highlights are the nice things that happen on the field.

I go on a silly little self-indulgent ego trip every Sunday when I post on Twitter what I regard as my sporting highlight of the weekend.

It’s an excuse to drift off for a few minutes and reflect on what I saw or heard of the day before and then try to pick out what I regarded as the “nicest” moment. Nice is totally subjective, of course, and I try to find that thing, for me, that’s a bit special, and it doesn’t necessary have anything to do with success on the field.

Sometimes, it appears, I strike the right note and quite a few people agree with me, via their like and retweet buttons. At other times they totally ignore me – not that there are that many that see what I have to say in the first place. But, as I said, I’m doing it for myself and it is really of no importance at all.

Sometimes there is more than just one nice thing happening on the same weekend so, because I make the rules, I allow myself to have two highlights. Like the time I saw Bryce Parsons of King Edward VII School smash a glorious hundred off 74 balls and, on the same day, I got to watch the fantastic Oranje Meisieskool hockey team in action at the St Mary’s Festival.

This past weekend was one of those. Jeppe High School for Boys played King Edward in the second leg of their double-header fixture and, after being well-beaten in the first encounter no-one gave them a chance. I never watched the game. I was there for the Jeppe hockey team’s 6-0 win, but then I wimped out in the cold and left early to meet up with the people I was going to the rugby Test with.

Jeppe won the game 25-7 and, by all accounts, they were never really troubled. A turnaround like that will always make my highlights list.

Then, as I said. I went to Emirates Airline Park for the game against Australia. I’ve seen some criticism, mainly of the empty seats, but I thought it was great occasion. The tributes to Johnny Clegg and James Small were tastefully understated, and using James’ kids as flagbearers for the Springboks was touching.

For me there were two really nice things about the game itself. Firstly Siya Kolisi’s servant leadership. He is injured at the moment, but he was out there before the warmup, putting out the cones and the training bags and he was busy retrieving and passing balls during the drills. And in the game, he put on the water boy’s bib and carried the bottles and the kicking tee on and off the field. He was miked up, of course, and was passing on messages from the coaching booth too, which is what all the water boys do these days.

I was at the Craven Week in Paarl two years ago, on the day when the Western Province senior team made an appearance at the field. They are contracted to do that, I guess, and most of the players looked rather bored, transfixed on their mobile phones with the ubiquitous bottle of water in the other hand.

Not Siya. He disappeared and popped up among the Eastern Province players, singing the Xhosa songs he had learned growing up playing school and club rugby in Port Elizabeth, with them. They were soon joined by the Border boys, who speak the same language, and sing the same songs.

There are two chapters straight out of any textbook on world-class leadership right there. Someone’s going to write a business school case study on leadership lessons from Siya Kolisi one day, if it hasn’t been done already.

And then there was Schalk Brits. The incident I mentioned was never shown on TV, I realised, when I watched the game again on Sunday. In the second half, Wallaby replacement hooker Jordan Uelese banged his head on Schalk’s hip while tackling him and went down, lights out. The ref stopped play and he was eventually taken off, but not before Brits had gone across to him, a good 25 metres away. He had a word, hugged him and tousled his hair. Great sportsmanship from one of the few rugby pros who always seems to play with a smile on his face.

That’s nice, and definitely one of my (three) sporting highlights of the weekend.

Monday, 8 July 2019

Not quite what Dr Craven had in mind

My friend Carl Fabian wrote a touching piece on his website about the Craven Week for the learners with special educational needs (LSEN) schools. And yes it is a Craven Week – Danie Craven sanctioned the use of his name for four rugby weeks: the high and primary schools Craven Weeks, the Craven Week for LSEN schools (called Special Schools back then), and a week for mine apprentices.

I don’t think the mines week exists anymore, I couldn’t find any reference to it. The others are going strong and, according to Carl, it seems, the LSEN Week is the one that is most closely sticks to what Craven had in mind when he first approved of schools interprovincial festivals.

He quotes a letter he “wrote” to Craven in 2016 in which he said: “The LSEN booitjies are still playing the game your way. They do not play rugby, Doc, hulle jol ruggas.”

He then goes on to bemoan the fact that the Academy Week organisers saw fit to match the selected national LSEN team and the LSEN XV against each other on the final day of the week in Bloemfontein this year. The boys, apparently, celebrated the fact that they were there at all and played that way – you wouldn’t expect anything else from those kids, would you? But before the game, Fabian says, one of them asked him: “Sir, why can’t we pay against the normal boys?” Touching.

It’s a window into a greater malaise. When asked if they would pit the Western Province and Western Province XV sides against each other in the main game, which seemed a likely scenario at one stage, an SA Schools Rugby official said yes. The teams are ranked, he said, and if those two were numbers one and two, they would meet in the final.

That is so far from Craven’s thinking that I would suggest that if they find a sponsor to replace Coca-Cola, they should consider dropping his name and name the week after it.

And I guess we will all have to get used to the fact that the Craven Week is not the showpiece of schools rugby that it used to be. Danie Craven’s principles are what made it special, along with the fact that we were seeing the cream of that generation’s players in action. That’s just not the case in either instance anymore.

Transformation of the game is absolutely necessary, but forcing all the teams to have more than 50% of their squads made up of black players at this level is not the way to do it. Good rugby players come from good teams, via good coaching and by playing with other good players against top opposition. That’s what happens in the top schools, week after week. The problem is that, outside of the Western and Eastern Cape, the top schools are fielding teams that are still mainly white.

If we are going to transform the game effectively it has to start at individual school level. Western Province is thriving because it, for a long time now, chooses its teams on merit – there’s no need for a quota there. There are some great black players in the teams from the other provinces, but many of them were struggling to find 12 who could play against the best in the land, and it showed in Bloemfontein last week.

Wednesday, 3 July 2019

Boland is Boland, everywhere except at the Craven Week

Exactly one year ago, I wrote an article for SARugbyMag arguing that players from the Paarl and Stellenbosch schools should represent Boland and not Western Province at the Craven Week.
Here’s a link to it:

Yesterday the Golden Lions lost to the Western Province XV at the 2019 edition of the week at Grey College in Bloemfontein and, because I’m no longer a reporter, I can declare that I’m a supporter, and it wasn’t much fun watching the game on TV.
The Lions were beaten fair and square, by a “B” team with several players in its ranks that would comfortably have made their team, and that of the other provincial teams that I watched in pre-Craven Week warmup games.
I did enjoy the Afrikaans commentary on SuperSport though, particularly that of Marco Botha – a Media 24 man who attended many Craven Weeks as a rugby writer and has a deft turn of colourful Afrikaans phrases.
It was one those which took me back to what I said last year. He told us, in Afrikaans, that one of the WP players was the Boland hurdles champion, so he could jump over the ruck rather than go around it. A clever image, but, what?!
Why does he do athletics for Boland and play rugby for Western Province?
That’s the issue. It’s not a new one, nor is it anything that will change any time soon, but that doesn’t mean I’m going along with it quietly, like everyone else seems to be doing.
I’ve still not been able ascertain how this situation came about, or who leaned on who in 2002 when after one year of fair play with everyone playing for the provinces that they lived in, the SA Schools Rugby authorities did a U-turn and allowed the Paarl schools back in to WP again.

After my column was published last year someone did offer an interesting explanation, one rooted in old historical social and political alliances which saw the cream of Paarl society distance itself from those who live on the other side of the Berg River. I haven't been able to find out if that was true. 

If you look at Tuesday’s team sheet you’ll see that 14 of the 23 players in the WP team are from schools that belong to the Boland unions of every other sporting code they participate in. There are those who argue that the current arrangement gives opportunities to players at other schools in the Boland to represent their province. That argument is flawed, of course. What about the 14 places in the WP XV that could have been filled by players from schools in Cape Town or other areas who actually fall within the Union’s boundaries?

Sure, the system allows WP to send four teams to the under-18 Youth Weeks, but it also means that Boland only sends two. If we really have opportunities for players at heart, what’s wrong with that being the other way around?

No. We are dealing here with the same old issue in school rugby – winning is what counts, and the morality of how you win doesn’t really matter.

You cannot justify, on any grounds other than the (undisputed) excellence of the Western Province Schools rugby teams, a setup where boys play cricket for Boland and rugby for WP. It’s wrong, and it taints, for me, any success those teams have – especially, I confess, when the Golden Lions are on the receiving end.

Monday, 1 July 2019

Thirty years of standout Craven Week players

There was a man called Dawie Crowther, a retired school principal and former SA Schools selector, working as a freelancer for Die Burger at the Craven Week for quite a few of the years when I was in the press box representing Independent Newspapers. He used to select his own SA Schools team each year – who he would choose, he stressed - not necessarily who the selectors were going to pick.

He’d been to more weeks than anyone else I know of, and when he had decided that he’d seen his last, he published his list of the best Craven Week players ever. I’ve always regretted that I never kept a copy of it.

I remember a few of the names, though. Ruben Kruger was one, Wahl Baartman another, and Stephen Brink. He chose the player who impressed him most in the 30 plus years that he attended the week, and it was someone who never played serious rugby after school – Herschelle Gibbs.

You can definitely see clearer in hindsight than in prediction so why not, I thought, replace my usual 1st day of the Craven Week “players to look out for” piece with a list of players that everyone took notice of. I won’t be at the Craven Week this year – so I won’t be spotting anyone new -  but it is based on some 30-odd years of going there.

My first week as a reporter was in 1990 in Durban, although I was at the 1988 week as manager of the then Transvaal XV and I was coach of the Transvaal side that won the main game at Ellis Park in 1989. Those were largely honorary positions those days, but still, I did get an inside look that has stood me well down the years.

In 1988 in Port Elizabeth, Ruben Kruger was the player everyone was talking about. I don’t remember much of his play, but he was a swarthy, hairy giant who looked at least five years older than any other player there.

In 1990 in Durban Os du Randt made a huge impact. A prop, playing for one of the smaller teams – North East Cape – who destroyed scrums and ran like a back.

1992 was Herschelle’s year. He scored most of Western Province’s points in their main game win over Free State and, because he was Herschelle, he was disciplined for missing a team event because he was away at a hypermarket signing cricket bats for his sponsor.

He wasn’t the only WP player to impress that year. Percy Montgomery stood out and was clearly destined for greater things too.

The next name that jumps out was Joe Van Niekerk. He was the star of the coldest week I remember – 1998 in Vanderbijlpark. He also made Dawie Crowther’s “best ever” list, I recall.

Rustenburg in 2001 stands out because it was the year when they forced the Paarl Schools into the Boland camp, where they actually belong, and in that Boland team was a player that stands out for me – Derek Hougaard.

The 2007 Free State team was in a class of its own in Stellenbosch, but for some reason only a handful of them was selected for the SA Schools team. One who did get the nod was Robert Ebersohn, and he was very good. But it was his brother, Sias, who really had everyone talking that year.

Two other Grey College boys stand out around that time – Johan Goosen, in Welkom in 2010 and Jan Serfontein the next year in Kimberley. Serfontein’s burgeoning talent was somehow coached away in the ensuing years – one of the greatest tragedies in SA rugby.

We are into modern times now, so the stories of the players are not yet fully written. Some have already achieved big things, others might still do so.

Here are those that stand out for me: Malcolm Marx and Rohan Janse van Rensburg (PE, 2012), Kwagga Smith (Polokwane 2013), Embrose Papier (Middelburg 2014), Salmaan Moerat and Curwin Bosch (Stellenbosch 2015), Damien Willemse, Wandisele Simelane and Tyrone Green (Kearsney 2016).

The fact that so many of those named are still playing, and not peaked yet, illustrates the challenges facing young players trying to get ahead in a talent-rich system such as ours.

There won’t be another Herchelle Gibbs in Bloemfontein this week – there will only ever be one of him – but one or two are going to stick their hands up, no doubt about that.