Sunday, 22 November 2020

There's more to student rugby than just playing the game

Michael Dick, known affectionately everywhere as Moby, is the doyen of university rugby administrators. He worked in that role at UJ for 17 years, and saw UJ emerge as the dominant club in the Lions union in that time, and the went over to Wits University where he quickly rose to the position of Head of Sport.

His move to Wits coincided with the coming across of long-time UJ coach, Hugo van As, and together they have overseen the remarkable transformation of Wits rugby from a relative non-factor to a significant force in the Varsity Cup and in the Lions club league.

He has, in all that time been a great servant of university rugby and has earned the reputation as an expert when it comes to identifying young players who have got what it takes to make it as student ruby players and has been able to recruit a number of future stars on rugby bursaries.

Playing rugby at university level isn’t just about the football, I’ve heard him say many times. The Varsity Cup regulations insists on academic performance as well as sporting but more than that, giving a bursary spot – and at Wits they are limited – to a student who is going to neglect the academic side and drop out after one year is a waste of time and resources.

Selecting those bursary recipients is tricky process and part of it is making sure the prospective student, and his parents, fully appreciate what lies ahead, and understand what it’s going take to succeed.

It’s something that the people doing the job at all academic institutions who recruit talented rugby players face. Moby has more than 20 years of experience in it and he recently put some of his thoughts down for the ruggas.co.za website.

It’s well worth a read, for school coaches who are concerned about what their matriculating players are going to do next (as all the good ones are), and for parents looking for financial assistance in putting their talented sons through university.

The link to it is:

http://ruggas.co.za/eight-brutal-honest-tips-for-sport-stars-leaving-school

 


Monday, 16 November 2020

Stopping sport at schools is not a good idea

 

The importance of sport at schools – to both teachers and learners – became really apparent in its absence this year. All school sport was halted in March 2020 when the nation went into lockdown as a result of the Coronavirus and it only resumed, in a limited fashion, in November. The entire winter season didn’t happen, neither did the start of summer in the third term.

The schools were closed down completely for quite a while and online learning became a new phenomenon. That, in some cases included online encouragement to pupils to stay active and engage in some sort of training regime. Virtual coaching sessions and webinars and workshops were presented to keep sport and sporting matters alive at a time when everyone was stuck at home.

Many admirable attempts were made, but there is no substitute for the real thing and there were reports of children becoming anxious and even depressed at not being able to get out there and run around with their friends.

In June the kids were allowed to go back to school – the grade 7s and 12s first – under strict protocols, with the rest coming back, bit by bit, in the months that followed. The conditions laid down included a ban on all school sport. There was some relaxation of that towards the end of the year, but returning to normal interschool activity was not allowed.

Clearly, the health of the children has to take precedence and limiting contact limits the chances of transmission of the virus. That said, however, there seemed to be little sense in allowing children to return into class rooms where they would be in close contact with each other, in enclosed spaces, but not allowing them to engage in sporting activities, in the outdoors, with limited physical contact.

If protocols could have been drawn up which, supposedly limit the risks of transmission in classrooms, the surely the same could be done in a sports context?

It comes down to two issues that have been recurring themes in my parallel interests in sport as part of the educational process and in the sadly unequal state of education in South Africa. Sport is unquestionably part of the educational process in schools, not a nice-to-have add on that can be dropped  just to be safe rather than sorry when it comes to transmission of the virus. At the same time, however, the sorts of sporting programmes that I tend to speak of do not exist in the majority of the schools in the country. I have written before of the damning ratio of five to twenty-five thousand – only five thousand of the twenty-five thousand schools in the country, according to research, meet the lowest standard of functionality: teaching and learning taking place on a daily basis.

In many of those schools there are issues of attendance - by teachers and learners, buildings are in disrepair, there are no sports fields there is very often no electricity or running water and the scourge of pit latrines has not been fully eradicated. When Covid-19 struck, of course there were bigger fish to fry than the authorities wondering how sport could be safely practiced in schools of that type.

It’s about inherited privilege and inequality and what should have been done to redress the situation. I don’t have the solution, but it’s clear that while there have been efforts, there hasn’t been much success in the last 26 years.

Fixing those schools, both physically and in terms of the development of the principals and teachers who work in them should be one of the top priorities, sadly it hasn’t been. And included in fixing them should be the establishment and upkeep of sporting facilities and the introduction of well planned and efficiently run sports development programmes. Without that, as I’ve often said when looking at transformation, we will never have the organic shift in the demographic composition of provincial and national teams which everyone desires and which at the moment can only be achieved through compulsory racial quotas at the selection stage.

But most importantly, it’s about preparing all our children as well as we can for the futures they face and there’s no question that sport plays a massive part in that.

Everyone should be given the chance to play, and let’s think very carefully before we stop them from doing that because we don’t think the lessons taught outside of the classroom are as important as the ones taught inside.

Friday, 16 October 2020

Craven Week. It doesn't have to end this way

I find it strange that, following the announcement that SA Rugby might not have the money to financially support the Craven Week next year, the assumption is that it can’t take place.

Last week the SA Schools Rugby Association (Sasra) met with Saru and announced afterwards that the national federation will not be funding the under-13 Craven Week, the LSEN Week and the under-18 Academy Week next year. There are two other Youth Week festivals – the under-16 and under-18 Girls Weeks (run as one) and the Iqhawe Week, an under-15 festival catering for schools that field four rugby teams or less. No mention of how those two will be funded was included in the statement, and it was stressed that the under-18 Craven Week and the under-16 Grant Khomo Week will be only be helped if the funds were available.

The likelihood of a cash-strapped Saru being able to do that is slim, particularly in the light of the purported R300 million that will be forfeited by pulling out of the Rugby Championships. Hence the assumption that there won’t be a Craven Week next year, followed by the expected reaction: anger and sorrow at the prospect of players losing out on opportunities to secure professional contracts at one end of the spectrum; and a ‘so what?’ attitude from the other end where detractors claim that the week has in any event deteriorated into a rugby development exercise from which many of the top players are excluded.

There’s some merit in both those points of view of course but the bigger issue, I think, is the way in which the Craven Week has become taken over by Saru to such an extent that it’s assumed that it cannot happen without their financial backing.

SA Rugby’s interprovincial youth weeks had been sponsored by Coca-Cola since 1997 but the deal was not renewed in 2018. The authorities are cagey about how much it was worth, but it’s accepted that it must have run into millions, increased every year. Coke’s withdrawal was clearly not only rugby-related – they pulled out of schools cricket and, significantly, out of the Copa Coca-Cola, a massive under-16 soccer competition, as well.

Coca-Cola was a great sponsor of the Craven Week, no question. I attended the week for 30 years and was a beneficiary of their largesse. They made it special for the players more special for coaches and officials and even more special for the VIPs. In the process, it grew flabby and there was an air of entitlement around the place. When Coke pulled the plug that disappeared, unless a new sponsor could be found or Saru footed the bill themselves. Well, there’s no new sponsor on the horizon, and Saru doesn’t have the money, so that’s the end of the week, right?

Wrong. Let’s talk about three of the other mass participation school sports: cricket, hockey and water polo. In all of three, and in most of the other codes played at schools, an annual interprovincial tournament is an accepted part of the programme. The year calendar is drawn up around the dates of those interprovincial weeks. The Khaya Majola cricket week was also sponsored by Coca-Cola and it is being largely funded by Cricket South Africa itself for the time being, the other two have only ever had partial sponsorships and both hockey and water polo don’t currently have big title sponsors with bottomless pockets. Their interprovincial tournaments are self-funded by the parents, along with any other sponsorships that the provinces might be able to secure.

And they run tournaments that dwarf the Craven Week in numbers and complexity. Take water polo, for instance. The 2019 SA Schools interprovincial tournament was held in Johannesburg. It involves boys and girls in all the age groups and is played on a preliminary round-robin and cross pool playoff basis. There were 111 teams, they played 455 matches, at 10 venues. Close to 1500 players were in action and around 350 officials. There was some sponsorship, covering T shirts and subsidising meals. A horde of volunteers – teachers, learners, parents, senior players etc – made it happen, and the participants had to pay to be there.

It’s similar in hockey. Again, there are boys and girls tournaments, at various venues – around the country in this case because you need enough astroturf pitches at each venue – and, again, it’s self-funded, and run by volunteers.

There’s little senior union involvement in the water polo or hockey tournaments. Granted, Saru is far more organised and has way more resources. Unlike the Craven Week, those are school tournaments. They aren’t regarded as part of the development and talent identification pipelines of the national federations to the extent that the rugby and cricket weeks are.

The question, therefore, is why should this be the end of the Craven Week (and the other Saru Youth Weeks)? Step back, make them school tournaments again and let someone else run them, on tight budgets, with parents paying for their children’s participation and local sponsorships easing the burden.

Parents are prepared to make sacrifices to give their children the chance to shine. You see that all over the school calendar. Wealthy and well-connected parents will always arrange sponsorships for the teams that their kids are in– that’s the only way it has ever happened with school sport sponsorships. The numbers aren’t huge and national publicity isn’t the goal, but every bit helps.

And admit that there are those out there who can get the job done. Committees made up of parents and teachers do it all the time, at the Easter Festivals, at water polo, cricket, and hockey tournaments. I know of one school where they are ready to step up right now. They have the track record to support that, having successfully run the girls interprovincial weeks in the past.

In the process, let’s give the rugby weeks back to everyone who is there. They aren’t supposed to be championship events. Saru can find other places to identify talent and dam up the flow that comes through the player development pipeline. Let the dog wag the tail again.

Friday, 18 September 2020

Let's watch our language and keep the fascism out of sport

 

In my most recent blog I became a bit sentimental while reminiscing about great school coaches who are no longer with us.

In the process I made the mistake of saying, while talking about Athlone Boys’ High’s headmaster of the 70s and 80s, Buddy Hurd, that Athlone ruled the roost in boys sports in the early 1980s. I guess I was guilty of the old sin of not letting the facts get in the way of a good story, but I was talking about great fallen warriors really, not about who might or not have been the top sports school in Joburg in 1980 and 1981.

Anyway, I was put straight, in strident terms, by one of the trumpet blowers of the school who, he said, actually ruled the roost. It turns out that while Athlone had the top rugby team in those two years (which many regard as the only thing that counts) and were tops in water polo and swimming, that was all. So, I was told that I wrote nonsense and made a statement that was wildly misleading. That may be true, although it confounds me that someone can get hot under the collar about things that happened 40 years ago, and which weren’t really important even then.

I got into a bit of a Twitter debate around the issue (always a mistake) and a word was used in a reply to me that made me realise that the real purpose of school sport is not understood by all. It was pointed out to me that his school “caned” Athlone in athletics in the 1980s. These days, when we should be vigilant about toxic masculinity, that’s a significant way of putting it. Caning is corporal punishment, it’s about the big man making the little one bend down in front of him and beating him on his backside.

That’s not a great image, and it really shouldn’t be used in relation to winning in sport.

Sport, after all, is part of the holistic education that so many schools claim they are providing in their quest to produce (in the case of the boys’ schools) better men, husbands and fathers. They love to  call their products gentlemen. A gentleman, I would think, is kind, generous and empathetic. If a school isn’t making the teaching of those values a big part of their sports programme then they should shut it down.

A gentleman doesn’t agree with corporal punishment, not literally nor figuratively.

I remembered writing about this stuff a few years ago, so I dug around and found a blog I posted in 2018 in which I had a go at schools that allow their rugby teams to win games by 70, 80, 100 points - there was even one 220-0 score – and then brag about it.

There were some right-minded people who commented on that story and they said what should be obvious: allowing a rugby game between children to go to over 100 points is an abomination. It does no-one any good, not the winners nor the losers, and worse, it encourages the mothers of those humiliated (and probably physically battered) players to withdraw them from the game.

Here's what I wrote at the time:


Now, if you think poorly coached and unskilled rugby players aren’t also important you need to take a breath and think about it. In the first instance, the quality of any elite side depends on the numbers below, reduce the base of the pyramid and the apex will be lower. Those involved in sport as part of the educational process have a duty to make their teams as good as they can be, but they also have a responsibility to the greater game. It’s also a matter of self-interest. What are they going to do when there is no-one left to play against?

 

And their duty to their players includes developing their character – there’s no profit in breeding braggarts and bullies, and scoring more than a point a minute is purely that: it’s bragging and it’s bullying.

 

Some question the value of helping out those strugglers – teach them the lessons of standing up against a superior force and taking their punishment like men, they say. How else will they learn?

 

It really shouldn’t be necessary to point out that that’s the language of the fascist, of the colonial master and the child-beating parent. Is it really what a fine educational institution wants to be saying?

 

I could have added that it’s also the language of the cane-wielding schoolmaster.

So, I got sentimental and exaggerated the achievements of Athlone Boys’ High during a very brief glorious period of its history. I was caned for it.

Here’s hoping that in the post Covid-19 era schools re-evaluate what they are trying to achieve through their sporting programmes.

 

Tuesday, 15 September 2020

We will miss the great coaches

 

Last week we heard of the death of Christo Meyer. He was well-known in schools rugby circles, particularly on the West Rand. He attended Monument and went on to teach there, and coach the 1st rugby team.

He later became the principal of Bekker School in Magaliesberg, before stepping down and becoming a teacher again, at Noordheuwel. That’s when I met him, on the committee of the then Transvaal Schools Rugby Association. That body had two parts those days – league and non-league (English medium) schools and I was a representative of the latter.

The two associations would get together for provincial affairs and Christo and I served on the Craven Week selection panel for years. He was also the force behind what was called the Roodepoort Rugby Club Coca-Cola series, a third term “stayers” tournament that somehow kept the name “Coke Series” long after the West Rand branch of ABI – the local bottlers of the soft drink – stopped sponsoring it.

Christo was one of those school teachers who dedicated a significant part of his life to setting up opportunities for children to play sport.

His passing made me made me think of some of the others, coaches and administrators who remained involved for long periods of time, and who made a difference to many young lives.

I can think of literally dozens down the years that I have been involved, first as a teacher and then as a reporter covering sport at schools. Many of them are still putting in the hours at schools across the land. If it wasn’t for lockdown they would be out there today coaching, refereeing, umpiring, organising extra practices whenever there was a spare moment and, all the time, taking an interest in the children in their care.

Sadly, many of them are no longer with us. A few years ago we lost Norman McFarland, probably the greatest thinker about schoolboy rugby, who coached the 1st team at King Edward VII school for many years.

A few years before that John Hurry, who coached cricket at King Edward VII School for over 40 years and mentored in his time a virtual who’s who of future provincial and international players, passed away.

Theirs are stories that are, no doubt, told over and over whenever those who they once coached meet up.

There were others. Men like Buddy Hurd. He was principal of Athlone Boys’High in the 1980s when that school ruled the roost as far as boys’ schools sports in Joburg were concerned. He famously made the Athlone swimming team train on the spring day in 1981 when it snowed in Joburg – he had reportedly told them that, come rain, snow or hail, “training is never cancelled”. So it wasn’t, although he never kept them in the water for very long, of course.

I remember the late Bill Lamont, who would hurl a stream of insults at the swimmers he was coaching, but in a such way that they loved him and stayed in the sport long enough to move up to the senior squad where Bill’s wife, Mo, more often than not turned them into provincial and national stars. His protégés were there in numbers at his funeral, comforting each other with the stories of those days.

Going back some years, I remember the late “Oom” Koos van Staden. A rugby coach and selector with an extraordinary eye for talent. He became an SA schools selector later and gave many a future professional player his first recognition as a potential star.

Closer to home were two extraordinary gentlemen, also both no longer with us, that I had the pleasure of working with at Highlands North Boys’ High. Russell Kitto and Derek Tarpey would both have admitted that they did not have the time or expertise to be great coaches, but they both produced highly successful teams and high achieving sportsmen and women.

Neither was afraid to ask for help and advice from the experts, but their success came from the sheer strength of their personalities, and from the genuine care and affection that they gave to the children they were in charge of.

Christo Meyer was one of those. He will be missed.

Wednesday, 26 August 2020

Paul Peters got me, and my role in selling The Star

 

I was saddened to hear of the passing of Paul Peters this week. Paul was the circulation manager of The Star throughout the period that I worked there and there was never any doubt that he was firmly in my corner when it came to fighting for the significance of the role that I was playing at the newspaper.

The tensions that exist between the editorial and business functions of newspapers are well-known and universal. The editors and reporters want to serve up the best stories. The businesspeople have to make money and revenue comes from two sources – circulation and advertising. The conventional story – books have been written and movies made about it – is that neither side cares very much for the other and doesn’t really see the point to what they do.

The reality is that both are important. Circulation - the number of copies sold – determines advertising rates which means how much money you can charge, and the number of newspapers sold is determined by the editorial content. So, while newspapers are businesses first and foremost and nothing else matters if they don’t make money, they can’t make any if no-one stops at the robot to buy their daily paper each day, so editorial content is crucial.

It’s one of those unresolvable conflicts and the circulation manager, Paul Peters in our case, finds himself right in the middle of it.

I worked at The Star for 22 years but never in hard news. I’ve seen comments this week from news people who knew Paul recalling that there were robust discussions around which kinds of stories were the ones that sold newspapers and I’m pretty sure that they often didn’t see eye to eye on that.

Paul Peters knew what was needed to get people to buy the newspaper. His knowledge and intuition was legendary and has been acknowledged by those who have marked his passing. He could guess the number of sales on a big news day, and on a quiet day, when it was raining, and during a cold snap. And he was always pretty much spot on.

For me personally, the important thing was that he realised that the products I was responsible for – the Workplace supplement and school sport – were important factors in the circulation numbers on the days that they appeared in the paper.

Workplace was a recruitment advertising supplement and Wednesdays, when it was published, were the biggest sales days for the daily Star throughout my time there. That even continued, on a smaller scale, after 2008 when a combination of the global financial slump and the takeover of classified advertising by the internet changed everything. The decision by Independent Newspapers management at the time to replace our advertising sales force with a call centre didn’t help either.

The circulation bump on Wednesdays was due to the unemployment situation in Joburg. Workplace carried pages and pages of job ads and people bought the Star in their thousands hoping to find a job. We never fooled ourselves that it was our editorial that was selling the paper in those numbers. But Paul Peters knew, and told me, that the quality of editorial in Workplace played an important part in getting those recruitment advertisers to come to us. The recruitment agencies became a news source for us, not of advertorial but in terms of expert advice around the best ways of finding and keeping a job.

The point was that our stories were about Joburg people and businesses and Paul knew local news sells papers. Editor Peter Sullivan commissioned research into readership in the late 1990s (the only time it was done in all my years at The Star) and the focus groups showed that the New Appointments page in Workplace – pictures and captions of appointments and promotions – was the most read page in the entire newspaper! Paul’s view was that the Workplace editorial (even without the recruitment ads) gave Wednesday’s numbers a boost.

School sport was different. It never sold advertising. The advertising sales department did make a few attempts to get sponsors and advertisers aboard, without any success. It did have a readership which, though not huge, was fiercely loyal. You could count on a niche readership to buy the paper every time school sport was in it, and they wouldn’t buy it if it wasn’t.

Paul Peters knew better than anyone that every single paper sold was important and he was never happy when school sport was dropped, or severely cut back in size. Until my last few years when Kevin Ritchie came up with the idea of an eight-page School Sport supplement in the Saturday Star as a permanent feature, I was in a constant battle with the sports department. They were always being squeezed for space and believed national and international sport should take precedence, which is perfectly understandable.

The fact is, though, that when school sport was dropped it affected circulation. I know that because Paul Peters told me so. For example, it was decided during the 2010 World Cup to drop school sport entirely to accommodate more World Cup stories. Paul told me afterwards that there was no appreciable increase in circulation that could be credited to the increased soccer coverage, and we lost the couple of thousand regular school sport readers as well.

Paul was a fan of school sport. His son Tyrone, who I later became friends with, was an acclaimed coach at Highlands North and later at Jeppe and Paul followed him closely. So he wasn’t completely unbiased, but he told me once that a few columns of results of school matches, and a photo with lots of names and faces was worth more to him than a half page portrait of Cristiano Ronaldo. I believed him.

I’ll miss Paul Peters, the newspaper world is poorer for his passing.

Wednesday, 1 July 2020

No Craven Week this year, and I'm not that sorry


In other times the Craven Week would have been under way in Port Elizabeth this week. It was cancelled, of course, along with all other school sports events. That was a wise decision, it turns out, seeing the number of infections really began to take off this week, particularly in the Eastern Cape.

It’s the first time since its inception in 1964 that the week hasn’t taken place. The other big schools interprovincial week, the Khaya Majola (previously the Nuffield Week) has seen gaps. Hannes Nienaber, in School of Rugby, points out that the 1955 Nuffield Week was called off because of a polio outbreak, and in 1971, when the so-called Border War was beginning to ramp up, the government decided that the boys must all go to the army straight away and should not be playing cricket.

In 1975 and 1976, Hannes explains the North Vaal Unions – those within the boundaries of the old Transvaal province -   had their own provincial festival because the Transvaal Education Department had moved to a three-term system ahead of the others.

Be that as it may, I’m sitting at home in the first week of July for the second year in a row having gone to just about every Craven Week since 1988. Last year I had a terrible sense of missing out, but at least we could see the games on TV and, besides, it was in Bloemfontein and one should actually be looking for reasons not to go there in the dead of winter.

This year it would have been in balmy Port Elizabeth and there are no games to televise so, I should be really downhearted. I’m not, however. I’ve had a lot of time to think, and it’s because the Craven Week is no longer what it used to be. It may not – for various reasons – survive this hiatus, but even if it does I’m not sure I’ll be that keen to make my annual pilgrimage to (what used to be) the shrine of schoolboy rugby.

Two years ago Coca-Cola ended their 37-year long sponsorship of the Craven Week. Later in that year they also pulled out of their school cricket and soccer commitments, so it seems it was part of a bigger cutback in spending. I’d been going to the week at Coke’s expense for quite a few years, so I knew a bit about how the sponsorship was managed and it was becoming, it seemed to me, a bit of an unhappy marriage in recent times.

The sponsors, through the sports management company they hired to handle things, were starting to interfere more and more and the SA Schools Rugby people, and SA Rugby, weren’t always sensitive to the sponsor’s needs.

And then SuperSport, with its special relationship with SA Rugby, has its demands. All the matches are televised live and they don’t want to air a friendly festival celebrating what people like me believe what is good in rugby. Dr Danie Craven’s principles for the week were quite quickly abandoned and it was turned, in effect, into a TV-friendly knockout tournament.

That’s one of the real reasons why, for me, the Craven Week has lost its charm.  The final fixture of the week, the so-called “main game” was reserved according to Craven for the two teams who played the most attractive rugby in their earlier two outings. I remember Craven storming into the press box at the Basil Kenyon Stadium in 1991 and giving us all an earful because he had seen that game referred to as “the final” in the local paper that morning. It turned out that the guilty party was the SAPA man – a road running specialist with no idea about the traditions – who had speculated on who would get the nod on the Saturday and the Herald had picked the story up.

Throwing the ball around, willy-nilly, wasn’t what was required however. Craven used to speak of effective attractive rugby and you’d never make the make the main game if you didn’t win your earlier encounters. There was the possibility of the unexpected however, and the lesser teams started off their campaigns with at least a chance of catching they eye with their style of play and getting a shot at upsetting one of the big guns.

Not anymore. Looking at the fixtures that were drawn up for the first two days this year, it’s clear that the quarter-final, semi-final, final format so loved by SuperSport (and many of their viewers) was meant to be in place once more.

On Monday Western Province were going to play Border and the Sharks against the Valke. On Tuesday Free State were going to be up against SWD and the Golden Lions would have played the Blue Bulls. Those are quarter-finals, no question, with the winners being matched in the second round – WP vs the Sharks and Free State vs the Lions or Bulls. The rest of the teams were there to make up the numbers.

The fixtures committee do like, if at all possible, to give the host province the final game, so Eastern Province were to be matched with Griquas, giving them an outside chance, depending on the quality of their victory. The matching of the Lions and the Bulls on day one was, some might say, a cynical way, probably WP-directed, to kick one of the two out of the bus at the first stop. I couldn’t possibly comment on that of course.

A Western Province vs Free State (or Lions/Bulls) final would be a great game, worthy of a Saturday morning TV slot. How that matchup would have been made would have had nothing to do with the values and traditions of the Craven Week, however.

I’m sorry I won’t be able to watch it, but I’m glad I won’t have been a witness to the process that got them there.