Friday, 15 May 2020

Taking the goalposts out of play was a good move. Now let's look at a few of the other crazy rugby laws

World Rugby’s decision to change the scoring law to exclude grounding the ball against the goal post or its surrounding padding was a welcome development. 

Not only did it remove an obviously unfair situation – how were the defending side, who were required to remain behind their goal line supposed to defend against an opponent grounding the ball against a cushion that extends half a metre infield – it also shows that the lawmakers are concerned with making rugby a fair contest all the time after all.

That it took so long for them to do so is a different issue of course. Coaches and players have been complaining about it for years and the wily ones have come up with a plan – lift the post protector up off the ground, so a try can’t be scored. It was only after initially saying doing that could result in a penalty try that they decided to stop the madness and change the law.

I’m wondering if this time of hiatus isn’t an opportunity to look at some other situations that are just unfair, and to do something about them.

I’ve got some suggestions to start with.

An inordinate number of penalties being awarded involve a tackled player with an opponent standing over him. The man on the ground is penalised for not releasing the ball when everyone in the world can see he has absolutely no chance of doing so.

The interpretation is that as long as the man on his feet is supporting his own body weight (which he almost never actually is) and as long as he visibly releases the tackled player for an instant, he can latch onto the ball and unless he is “cleaned” away (more of that later) he is virtually guaranteed a penalty.

The call is “holding” or “not releasing” made against the guy on the ground when the holder is actually the guy on his feet. And boy does he ever not release! The commentators are particularly effusive in their praise for those players who get their hands in there and cannot be budged.

The wrong player is being penalised, World Rugby! And you don’t even have to change the law, the current one tells us what should happen.

Law 14: Tackle, under Player Responsibilities says quite clearly:

Tacklers must:

5. Immediately release the ball and the ball-carrier after both players go to ground.
c. Allow the tackled player to release or play the ball.
d. Allow the tackled player to move away from the ball

Those breakdown heroes are actually villains and they are getting rewarded for it.

This is a quaint way of describing the way in which opponents are forcibly removed when they are attempting to go for the ball, usually at a ruck. 

One of the timeless principles of the game, surely, is that you cannot play a man who does not have the ball. The term “playing the man not the ball” has become an English idiom describing the worst sort of conduct in competition, yet it’s allowed in rugby these days, and called cleaning – for goodness sake! 

I’ve been scouring the Law Book trying to find out how it’s justified and I can’t.

It’s clear in Law 9: Foul Play that it’s illegal. Under Dangerous play it says:

14 A player must not tackle an opponent who is not in possession of the ball.

The next point does say:

15. Except in a scrum, ruck or maul, a player who is not in possession of the ball must not hold, push, charge or obstruct an opponent not in possession of the ball

But go to the laws covering scrums, ruck and mauls and you’ll see that binding plays a big role. You have to bind on an opponent in all those phases. Then you can remove him, I guess. Nowhere does it say that you can charge in and dive opponents out the way.

The referees do penalise certain types of dangerous cleaning out, and it has to be done in close proximity to the ball. That tells me they know it’s wrong. Why not write a new law clarifying all of this and get back to the old-fashioned traditions and virtues that the Playing Charter in the law book refers to.

The Driving Maul
This one I’m sure they are going to change soon. It’s so patently wrong that they don’t have a choice.

Look at Law 9: Foul Play’s first section: Obstruction and you’ll see that there is nothing about a maul off a lineout that is actually legal.

Here’s what the Law Book says about obstruction:

3. A player must not intentionally prevent an opponent from tackling or attempting to tackle the ball-carrier.
4 A player must not intentionally prevent an opponent from having the opportunity to play the ball, other than by competing for possession.

Go to Law 17: Maul, and you’ll see it says:

The purpose of a maul is to allow players to compete for the ball, which is held off the ground.

It was a clever coach somewhere that turned the maul into a try-scoring technique and it’s become acceptable. Put a stop to it, World Rugby. The defenders are the ones getting penalised, trying to defend the indefensible, how is that fair?

Besides, it’s boring!

You can download the latest Law Book at:

Wednesday, 13 May 2020

Now's the time to reboot

This forced sabbatical from rugby has led to much thinking about how the game should change when it gets going again. I’ve read some encouraging suggestions on how we can get back to the real spirit of the game, rejecting the commercially-driven rugby commodity that those who want to make money out of rugby have been forcing us to buy into.

Rugby has become a product and we are consumers, eagerly searching for the latest and the best. Not that they want us to ever find it. That’s the secret of consumerism – the customer is never quite satisfied, that way he keeps on looking for more, and paying more for it.

Take school rugby. The product that’s been developed and which is enthusiastically marketed by the online rugby media, is one of behemoth schoolboy players, superbly conditioned and skilled, playing for a limited number of “super” schools who all compete against each other, more or less. Even though there’s no national competition, rankings are drawn up and there’s no doubt that those schools play for the South African championship crown.

There has been talk of a national league being introduced and there are festivals at which those top schools play – those are the products, constantly being refined, that keep the consumers hooked. Winning is openly and unashamedly the dominant value and a blind eye is turned to all sorts of unethical and uneducational practices in the pursuit of success.

It’s a million miles removed from the original intention of rugby as part of an extra-curricular, enrichment programme at schools that’s meant to supplement classroom teaching, to instill certain healthy lifestyle habits and to guide young people in the formation of their outlook on life.

The thinking I’ve been doing while there’s no real rugby going on has been around how this forced break might be an opportunity to decide on what is really important and to reboot the system. Schools and educationalists should make those decisions, not the marketers and profiteers of the school rugby system that have emerged in recent years.

I may dreaming, I probably am, but I think there are many in education who will agree. When I speak to principals and coaches about these things, many of them roll out the old “Lance Armstrong” excuse, saying everyone else is doing it, so they too have to professionalise their approach to rugby. I know they know better – there are brilliant educationalists among them – but they feel trapped by the system, which is the system’s intention.

Let’s hit Ctrl, Alt +Delete and when we come back online let’s make rugby a school activity like it was meant to be again – educational, honest, ethical and community-based. Kick the marketers and their professionally packaged products into touch and let the boys enjoy the game at the appropriate level again.

Saturday, 25 April 2020

Varsity Cup - efficient but not really satisfying

There's a fence outside the bar, under the pavilion at the Wits Rugby Club where I, and a good few other long-time supporters, have been watching Wits teams play for the last 40-odd years, or more.

That area is a no-go during Varsity Cup games. Try to stand there and the security will move you along - there's a sign they point you to saying you aren't allowed there and that's it.

That's an example, for me, of what's gone wrong in recent years with sport, including rugby.

Now, the Varsity Cup is a great competition, it breathed new life into club rugby, provided an alternate route into the professional game for players who didn’t shine as juniors and never went to the Craven Week and, most importantly, it made rugby accessible and popular among young black people.

Sadly, however, the competition lost its soul a bit when the unions began to see it as another feeder competition for their pro teams and sharp practices began to be uncovered. Some of the loopholes were closed, but it really isn’t the pure inter-varsity competition it was conceptualised to be anymore.

Still, I’m a Wits supporter, and I go along to their home games. I’m fortunate to have VIP tickets now and I’m well looked after, but I can’t stand in my spot of 40 years at the fence outside the bar any more.

Which brings me back to my point. I’ve been re-reading John McKnight and Peter Block’s The Abundant Community, which bemoans the way that communities have been replaced by systems and citizens are now consumers. It’s all driven by those who look for ways to make money out of us and while system living more efficient than community life, it isn’t satisfying. In fact we are intentionally kept dissatisfied, if we were ever satisfied we would stop buying. So they lie to us, and make false promises.

A feature of abundant communities are voluntary associations. The local sports club is one those. Wits Rugby Club is a type of community. The boys along the fenceline don’t live in the neighbourhood, but they are all associated – they are former players, alumni, parents of current or ex-players etc. We know each other by sight and some are friends, even if it’s only at Wits home games.

I’m thrilled, of course, that Wits did so well in the Varsity Cup this year. They were a shoe-in for the knockout phase when it was all brought to a halt by Covid-19, having beaten UCT, Tuks, UJ and Pukke and would have been great to see how they measured up against the mighty Maties.

For the fence community results are not the only thing, though. If they were we wouldn’t have carried on watching during some pretty lean years at the club. In fact, the only time we weren’t there was when rugby disappeared completely at the university at one stage. But we came back when it was revived thanks, among others, to the efforts of some wealthy old boys, a few of whom were regulars at the fence.

The Varsity Cup is brilliantly run. It’s well marketed and glitzy and a great night of boozy entertainment for the residential students. It’s a system, geared to consumers and the rugby is exciting and entertaining.

It’s efficient for sure, but for those who see Wits Rugby club as their community – and I’m certain there are similar old fogeys at the other varsities around the country too – it’s not entirely satisfying.

I’m wondering if, post Covid-19, when the money is less and big crowds are undesirable, we won’t see a resurgence of club rugby as a less efficient but more satisfying concept.

You can get The Abundant Community on, when they start delivering books again.

Monday, 6 April 2020

Time to look at the two referees idea again?

I watched the 2014 UCT vs Pukke Varsity Cup final on Supersport’s Relive today – the most remarkable comeback to win you’re ever likely to see – but it was the 2-referees experiment that caught my eye.

The two in charge that night, Marius Van der Westhuizen and Cwengile Jadezweni, clearly had no idea how to handle it and seeing them both drawing a square in the air for the TMO at the same time was just embarrassing.

In those final frantic minutes Marius took over completely and JD disappeared, which was probably just as well, imagine if they made conflicting calls at that stage and UCT’s momentum was halted while they tried to sort it out.

The experiment was not repeated and there’s been no talk of it since. I do think it was a wasted opportunity, however, and much of the current refereeing mess could be sorted out by two officials, working in harmony according to a plan.

Little attention seemed to be paid to how the two would work together and how to divide their duties and responsibilities when the Varsity Cup experiment was introduced.

I was at the press conference when that year’s experimental laws were introduced – rubber studs on the jerseys of the props to improve binding was another one – and I asked what I thought was the obvious question: had the SA Referees Association sought advice from other games that have been using two officials all along? Basketball, hockey and water polo were the examples I gave. I was basically told to sit down and shut up, they have it all worked out, by Andre Watson who was there to explain the experimental law variations.

I concede that I had no right to interfere, but I still believe the idea of two refs is a good one, they just did it all wrong.

The key to those other games lies in the division of the field of play. In the Varsity Cup they divided the field into two by drawing a line between the centre of the two sets of goal posts. That meant both refs looked at attack and both looked at defence and nothing had changed except they both blew for the same offences generally.

I was a water polo referee for many years and at one time I was pretty well versed in the laws and interpretations of that game. The key to the interaction between the two referees there is that each one controls his particular zone of attack. He is in charge of what is called there and the other ref doesn’t butt in unless he sees a major foul (a penalty or a exclusion offence) that his colleague might miss. He positions himself in line with the last player in the backfield and has a wider angle view of the game from there. He is also well placed for the transition when possession changes hands.

The pool is divided into two diagonally, from corner to corner. Each refs is in charge of the sector to his right, which includes the whole of the goal-line on that side and none of the goal-line to his left.

Hockey and basketball are run much along the same lines.

Why didn’t they do that with rugby? Draw a line from corner flag to corner flag. Each ref runs an entire “red zone”, on attack or defence and the other one hangs back and watches off the ball including offsides (wouldn’t that be a good idea). The trailing ref can blow for penalty offences that are missed, but otherwise he defers to the ref in charge of that sector.

It’s not rocket science and it’s been worked out in detail in those other codes. We could have learnt from them, and the game would have been better for it, for my two cents worth.

Friday, 27 March 2020

40 years on - who stands out in my schoolboy rugby memories?

At the newspapers they call the Christmas period the silly season. It’s that time of year when the papers are thick because of the extra end of year advertising that came in, but the news is thin because everyone was going on holiday. So, we’d fill those pages with reviews, “best of the year” lists and top 10s etc.

And that’s what’s going on now of course, with all sport suspended due to the Covid 19 virus, and the online media feeling obliged to keep updating their sites. TV, likewise, is supplying glut of replays of fabulous matches gone by.

I, as a compulsive bloviator, can’t resist joining in and I thought it would be fun (for me anyway) to look back on my 40-odd years of watching schoolboy rugby and draw up  a list of the best players I saw in that time.

It’s a dangerous undertaking, I know. There were many good players that I never saw play, and I only attended a specific type of school game – the Joburg English, or non-league schools, and a smattering of the Afrikaans schools at festivals and such. There’s also the issue of a fading memory.

So, here’s my completely subjective list for, what it’s worth.

1 Heinke Van der Merwe (Monument). He was the Monnas captain during a very successful era for the school and I remember one year reporting that he scored 13 tries for them, as a prop, and two more at the Craven Week. He played five Tests for the Springboks, but never really became established and went on to a long and illustrious career in Ireland and then France.

2 James Dalton (Jeppe). He turned out to be one our most successful international players. While his power and effectiveness as a Test player was amazing for someone who was relatively small, I recall that as a schoolboy he was regarded as huge. He was one of the first schoolboys to go full out on weight conditioning and it showed. He was undoubtedly the best schoolboy hooker I ever saw.

3 John Smit (Pretoria Boys’ High). Although he went on to play over 100 Tests as a hooker, he was a prop at school. Even then his leadership quality was evident and Boys’ High was a feared opponent, hardly ever beaten by any of the Joburg schools. He was a powerful scrummager, but also useful with ball in hand.

4 David Copans (Highlands North). Yes, I’m biased – I coached him – but “Oaf” as he was called - was devastating in the games we played. He was a big man, with great skills and unstoppable 10m from the tryline. He was an allrounder, one of the few local schoolboys who played for the province both at the Craven Week and at the cricket Nuffield Week.

5 Ivan Labotsky (Monument). You could pick any number of Monnas tight forwards from the 80s and 90s, but Labotsky is one who sticks out for me. He was massive, powerful and altogether intimidating on the field. And absolutely charming off it – quiet spoken, respectful and polite – as so many of the Afrikaans players I come across are. He was in the Transvaal team that won the main game at the 1989 Craven Week and I was surprised that he didn’t go on to play at a higher level.

6 Nigel Pickford (Jeppe). Out of position – I think he was an eigthman – but he was a Jeppe captain in the golden Jake White era and typified the type of rugby that those teams played, which was streets ahead of anyone else at the time. He was a great leader and a uncompromising forward.

7 Chesney Thomas (Highland North). Definitely out of position, but only because my No.8 is the best schoolboy player I ever saw. The oldest of the Thomas brothers – Lee and Gareth also played Craven Week – was in a class of his own at that time. He was regarded with awe by just about everyone involved in school rugby.

8 Johan Van Niekerk (KES). As I said, if I was pushed to name the best schoolboy I ever saw I’d have to say Big Joe. He went on to win over 50 Test caps and everyone could see that coming. He was a step ahead of all the others, strong, fast and intelligent. I wrote at the time that he would cross the advantage line every time he carried the ball, and he had the ability to do that at international level too.

9 Freddie Botha (Athlone). In the late 1970s and early 1980s Athlone Boys’ High was a dominant force in local schools rugby. They beat everyone, including Monument, and the Botha brothers, Freddie and Vic, were very much at the heart of their success. Freddie was a great scrumhalf and it was a travesty that he didn’t get selected for the province, but it was almost impossible to get the nod if you were at an English school in those days.

10 Jamie White (KES). He was stereotypical of the King Edward flyhalves in his period – smallish, elegant and highly skilled. He was an excellent distributor and was the catalyst for countless tries within the KES pattern of those days. I do recall that he was something special, however. He had a devastating break, usually saved for late in the game, and I remember him dropping one or two match-winning goals.

11 Jaco Louw (Linden). Someone asked on social media last week who the fastest wing you ever saw was, and for me it was Jaco Louw, without question. He scored many tries at school level and went on the play senior provincial rugby. He was too slight to go all the way to the top at a time when strength and conditioning was still quite primitive.

12 Wandesile Simelane (Jeppe). He was among the first of the new breed of black players who dazzled with his guile and footwork. He was the talk of the town in his matric year and made the SA Schools team. He was also a deadly accurate goal-kicker, something not many seem to remember these days. It’s just a matter of time before he really kicks in as a professional player and I believe he is a future Springbok.

13 Kennedy Mpeku (KES). One year younger than Simelane, but cut from the same cloth. As a schoolboy he had it all and was a key player in arguably the best KES side in 20 years. He also made the SA Schools team and will undoubtedly be heard of again.

14 James Moss (Parktown). He was probably not far behind Louw for pace and scored many tries for Parktown in what was a golden era for the team. He went on to play many games at senior provincial level.

15 James Small (Greenside). Although he would go on to become one of SA’s greatest ever wingers, James Small played fullback at Greenside. He was a top athlete at school and a gifted ball-player. He was a troubled youth, I remember, and it was his coach at Greenside, Deon Visser, a gifted man-manager who reached great heights in education, who kept him on the straight and narrow. Greenside played the big schools in those days, and they were competitive mainly because of James Small. He single-handedly won many games for them.

Looking at that list, I realise I have not done the more recent players much justice. I guess I’m too sentimental, or maybe it’s that Alzheimer’s tendency to remember the distant past more clearly than the recent.

Certainly loosies like Hacivah Diyamani, Travis Gordon and Evan Roos wouldn’t be out of place in that company. Neither would backs like Tyrone Green, David Carey or Madosh Tambwe.

But that’s how I remember them. Let’s pray that we’ll be making new memories this season still.

Wednesday, 4 March 2020

Let's get back to educational values - even if it means losing rugby games

There have been three fairly widely reported incidents lately that have fallen right into the lap of a serial whiner about the state of school rugby like me.

First there was the very dodgy granting of bursaries to primary schools players in KZN, then there was the BBC report on steroid use in our schools and now the story of 17 and 18 year-olds playing in the under-13 primary schools Craven Week.

Cleverer people than me have identified what you need to be a successful sporting team.

You need talented players, obviously, you need good coaching, you need good facilities and equipment and you need regular quality competition that allows you to test your players and systems against good opposition.

You would expect professional sporting setups to meet all those requirements. They are all important, and the 1st two – players and coaching – are generally the difference between the champions and the rest.

In a school rugby context those things are not always guaranteed – not in the vast majority of cases anyway.

In the past schools took in their grade 8s and set about coaching them to be the best that they can. That applied to everyone you played against, and the playing fields were even. Coaching was usually the difference, and given that the available talent was quite randomly distributed it was accepted that even the best schools would sometimes have a poor year.

Greater exposure in the media (and I confess to have played a role in that); the introduction of satellite television with its hunger for 24 hours of sports coverage and then the advent of social media, meant that the results of school first rugby teams became national news. National rankings followed and winning became more and more important.

At around the same time the professionalisation of rugby at national and provincial levels trickled down into the schools. That was a good thing, rugby-wise, but the investment it required made winning even more important.

Of course you play sport to win, and schools have a duty to prepare their teams and players to have the best possible chance of winning. But to what ends do you go?

If you cannot meet the requirements for success, do you accept it and work hard at competing anyway, or do you do what it takes to meet them, even if it means cheating?

Schools are educational institutions, nothing more, nothing less. And educational values demand of them to be ethical and unscrupulously fair in all they do. If you don’t behave that way, you have no right to be in a position where you are influencing and moulding young people.

Once you make winning your dominant value, however, then you are saying that it supersedes educational values and you will do what it takes to win. It means if you don’t have the talent, you go out and buy it from other schools via bursaries and other financial incentives. Then you ensure that you have the best coaching by employing men who have experience at senior provincial level, paying them million-rand packages, at the expense of the parents or out of trust funds or donations which would be far better used in redressing the dire inequality that exists in our schooling system. Likewise, you spend millions on building facilities that are only used by a small sector of the school. And you stop playing your neighbours and design elite national leagues and festivals that include only those who think like you and are prepared to throw money at rugby like you do.

In the highly competitive world of recruitment you start signing up 11 and 12 year-olds, before anyone else can get hold of them. You turn a blind-eye to the gargantuan physical proportions of young players, pretending to believe the bogus birth certificates that indicate they are playing at the right age level. And, at worst, you encourage players to bulk up by using performance enhancing drugs or, at best, you turn a blind eye to that once-slight boy who has gained 10kg of muscle in a short period of time.

Probably worst of all, schools exploit the inequality and poverty that still exists in the country. A bursary to a good high school can be a way out for an impoverished family, and a Varsity Cup or provincial contract can lead to unimagined riches for poor black boys. In the name of transformation and diversity those sorts of players are targeted, and the talented ones are plucked away, and we are told it’s being done for altruistic reasons.

It’s easy to see how those poor families will fight tooth and nail for those opportunities. Is it surprising that some of them might manufacture birth certificates or that the boys may be tempted to take steroids in an attempt to get a foot in the door?

It’s all about winning, and attempts to justify what is going on as educational or child-centered personal development are dishonest.

The Lance Armstrong justification of “everyone is doing it” is quite common, and I’ve been asked what I would do to stop it. I can’t do a thing, except to carry on whingeing about it. But the principals of the schools can. They are responsible for everything that goes on at their schools (including the money spent in the name of the school by old boys and trust funds). They all have to say no more! And they have to mean it and act honourably from then on.

It's not impossible. It’s actually what they are being paid to do.

Wednesday, 19 February 2020

Why run an under-18 elite rugby camp now?

The announcement of an under-18 Elite Player Development squad of 53 by SA Rugby this week raises a quite a few red flags.

They will be at the Stellenbosch Academy of Sport from Thursday 27 February to Sunday March 1st and an SA Rugby statement says, “The main objectives of the camps are to assess the players’ physical and technical abilities and to guide them with the goal of preparing them to advance through the structures in future. The players will participate in a series of training sessions over the four days, where they will have the opportunity to work with a handful of coaches within the SA Rugby structures.”

There will be, we are told, similar under-16 and under-17 camps later in the season.

The website, in its compelling weekly Ruggas TV vlog, makes a number of telling observations on the issue. Take a look at it, it’s in Afrikaans and if you understand it, you don’t really need read this piece any further. I fully concur with what they have to say. The link is:

For those who don’t speak Afrikaans, here’s a synopsis, with a few of my own observations added in.

The first and obvious question is why? Seeing that the main objective is to assess the players and guide their preparation for the year ahead and seeing the majority of those named come from the usual places: the professionally-run elite rugby schools (more on that later) why not leave those functions to the schools themselves. They know the boys, have been doing those measurements anyway and have shown themselves to be more than capable of putting young players on skills and physical conditioning programmes.

Why take them to Stellenbosch (at great cost) on the weekend before their season begins – it will already have started for some – when they can learn the same things at home?

The matter of costs, the Ruggas crew suggests, could explain the lopsided composition of the group. You can see their names here:

Twenty of the 53 players named are from Western Province, which will cut the travel bill; the Blue Bulls and Sharks supply six each; nine are from Grey College, which is about right; while the Golden Lions, despite being highly competitive at the Craven Week in most years and a rich source of players of colour, only have three representatives.

I rather believe it’s further proof of the favourable treatment that WP gets at this level. The same treatment that allows them two sides at the Craven Week when all the other provinces have been cut to only one. Three or four of the top 10 schools in the land are in the Western Cape, sure, but that really doesn’t mean that there aren’t good players in other schools around the country.

Then there’s the question of establishing an elite group before the season has kicked off. I presume it is made up of players who were at the under-18 and under-16 Youth Weeks in 2019. What guarantee is there that they will be the best around in 2020? Will they all even make the 1st teams at their schools this year?

And what about the players who have been left out? Aren’t they being told they are not good enough, before a ball has even been kicked in anger? Are we being told that the Craven Week has become irrelevant (I think it is going that way), if not, why not choose this squad in July?

It’s one of those exercises that sounds quite clever, but really isn’t. It’s closing the net when they should be trying to spread it wider. What about the late developers, what about the isolated nuggets at the weaker rugby schools that we all know are there?

And most importantly, what about the potential stars who see their exclusion as rejection and either lose their motivation, or start looking for overseas options?