Monday, 7 June 2021

Two Jeppe old boys in Springbok squad

Sbu Nkosi and Wandisile Simelane were included in the 41-man squad from which the Springbok rugby teams to play against the British and Irish Lions in July will be chosen.

Sbu is something of a Springbok regular - he has 11 Test caps - while Wandile will be making his first appearance at this level.

It’s just a matter of time before Wandi makes his first Test appearance. We are holding thumbs that it will be this time around,

Sunday, 23 May 2021

Professionalisation of schools rugby - it's not a single story

 I got involved in a lively twitter debate on the issue of schools becoming rugby academies following a tweet from Jonathan Alexander Smith who quoted a blog by Timothy E Jarvis who, in turn, was quoting Allan D Miles.

I have great admiration for Timothy Jarvis and Allan Miles and eagerly await, and read, everything they post on their respective blogs, Theres’s a Hadeda in my Garden and Coach Talk.

I fully agree with what they say about the capture of schools rugby and the undesirable transformation of some schools into rugby academies. These are issues I’ve been on about for years and on which I’ve written extensively, in my days as a journalist, and in my own attempts to be blogger now that I’ve retired.

I hate twitter (and I love it). The problem is that you cannot have a real debate in so few words. You run the risk of making your point poorly, or of having what you said misunderstood. From then on, the conversation continues with you stuck in a box and with no way to speak your way out of it. It’s frustrating and that’s why you shouldn’t get into discussions on twitter. The reply function on twitter is the perfect tool for the narcissistic listener who is composing his response in his head before you have finished talking.

So, while fully agreeing with the views of those quoted on the negative aspects of a professional approach to rugby in schools, I pointed out that it’s not a single story (nothing ever is). What I wrote (probably a bit ambiguously) is:

“Good points but, as always, it's not a single story. Schools have a duty to prepare teams & players to compete in this new "pro" environment. There are principals and coaches who are great ethical educationists, Not all high performance systems are evil.”

My use of the phrase “pro” environment refers to the way in which teams and players are prepared nowadays in the highly competitive world of interschool rugby at the top level. It has nothing to do with producing players for the professional rugby game once they leave school. Of course it’s not the role of schools to do that and I would never suggest that it is. The chances of making it as a professional player are so slim that it’s actually very poor advice to encourage a young player to put all his efforts into it.

We need professional players. They are the ones we all love watching on TV and in the stadiums (in the good old days). Quality coaching at school level is necessary to put them on their paths, but it’s not the role of school rugby to produce players for the professional ranks.

The professional school rugby environment I’m talking about is managed by highly qualified coaches – technical experts, fitness specialists, sports psychologists, nutritionists etc. Teachers, typically don’t have these skills, so those roles are filled by people from outside the school, and they don’t come cheap.

For the boys involved, rugby becomes pretty much the only game they can play, and they practice almost all year long. Early specialisation, excessive exercise workloads and, sometimes, the use of performance enhancing substances, are the problems that are often found.

And it’s all driven by an over-emphasis on winning. Timothy and Allan have that exactly right in what they have written. No amount of professional coaching will bring you victory if you don’t have the right players, so recruitment becomes part of it, and it’s probably the greatest of the evils, akin (almost) to child trafficking.

When schools use the possibility of a career as a player to lure a promising youngster to their ranks they are being dishonest. They know they cannot guarantee that he will make it. No, it’s all about winning, and ensuring that there is a flow of good (and physically big) players coming through the age groups.

It is, however, not a single story. In my 40-odd years of closely observing schools rugby I’ve seen some pretty shady practices, and a lot of dishonesty. But I’ve also met great educationalists and philosopher coaches who have the interests of their players at heart.

I’m not arguing that the professionalisation of rugby at school level is necessarily the right thing. I am saying, however, that not every school that runs a professional rugby system is guilty of unethical and uneducational practices. And I’m saying that it is possible to run a sophisticated, super-efficient programme and still have the holistic education of the kids at heart.

That’s what great schools are all about. They have great people in them, and they are very successful in all that they do, including rugby. They treat everything seriously and do all they can to turn their learners into the best possible versions of themselves. They all have successful sporting programmes and all produce excellent academic results with near 100% pass rates and bucketsful of distinctions.

That’s not always the case, I know, and there are plenty of examples of where the obsession with winning overrides everything and things go wrong. Those schools are not among the great ones, in my view.

I don’t like the professionalisation of school rugby, just as I don’t like twitter, but there are no single stories.

Wednesday, 31 March 2021

It's Easter, but there's no Saints Festival this year and that's a great pity

The Easter rugby festivals were supposed to kick off on Thursday but Covid-19, for the second year in a row, has put paid to that. 

I was asked to write a history of the event for a feature the Saturday Star ran a couple of years ago and I've included it in my book (soon to be published, I dream) in a chapter on enduring school sport success stories.

I'm feeling nostalgic today, contemplating festival-less Easter weekend, so I thought I'd tell the story again, here as my Two Cents Worth. 

The other long term school sport success stories I've included in the book are: St Benedict's unbeaten rowing run; the growth of girls water polo; Northcliff High at the co-ed schools athletics interhigh; St Mary's dominance of girls sport in Joburg; the rise of soccer in our schools; the Craven Week; Grey College as the top rugby school in the land; King Edward VII School's all-round excellence; and Monument's dominance of rugby in this town.       

The St Stithians Easter Rugby Festival

In 1984 St Stithians College turned 30 years old and, as is customary when it comes to school anniversaries, it was decided to mark the occasion with sporting events to which their long-term friends and rivals would be invited.

Rugby is generally the cornerstone of anniversary celebrations programmes, so it was decided to hold a rugby festival over the Easter Weekend that year. It was supposed to be a once off occasion, but it grew into an annual event, morphing into what is now the Saints Easter Sports Festival, a multi-code long weekend involving boys and girls teams, and a primary schools rugby festival the week before. If it weren’t for Covid-19, 2020 would have been the 36th edition of the event.

The people who came up with the idea were the then Saints headmaster, Mark Henning, the master in charge of rugby, Tim Clifford, and the chairman of the Parents Association, Colin Hall. They had different motivations. Apartheid’s grip on the country was strong in the 1980s, but there were some chinks of light and one of them was that private schools like St Stithians were enrolling more and more black learners.

It wasn’t a move that was welcomed by the rugby authorities. Those boys weren’t eligible for provincial selection, and schools with black players weren’t allowed to enter league competitions. Henning wanted all the boys in the school to be given every opportunity to perform, so he decided to use the idea of the festival to let the black payers who were at the formerly whites only schools an opportunity to shine on a bigger stage.

Hall was a top business man – he was a director of SA Breweries and the CEO of Woolworths, among other achievements – and he saw the festival as an opportunity to raise the profile of the school and get it noticed on the national stage, which would result in greater enrolments. Tim Clifford was a rugby man, he wanted to see the best schools and players play on the St Stithians field, and to test his team against them.

The first festival featured 10 schools: Alexandra High, Bishops, Capricorn, Kearsney, King Edward, Potchefstroom Boys’ High, Pretoria Boys’ High, St Andrew’s, St John’s and St Stithians.

The idea was to invite like-minded schools that shared a values-driven ethos and had a healthy attitude to sport and it was decided from the beginning that it would be festival of rugby. There would be no overall winner, no tournament team would be selected and no man of the match awards would be made. The idea was to match schools who didn’t normally meet during the season, so there would, as far as possible, be no derby games and no repeat fixtures from year to year.

Much was to change over the next 35 years, but those basic principles were not compromised. The festival is still there and it has grown, despite the changing school sports environment. The credit for accomplishing that can largely be given to one man, Piet van Tonder. He took over from Tim Clifford as tournament organiser in 1987 and by the time that he retired as deputy headmaster of the school in 2013, he had run 26 festivals, always sticking to the values that the first ones had been based on.

In 1984 South African sport was buckling under the weight of isolation. There was no international rugby and the Currie Cup was the biggest thing on the calendar. That competition only began later in the year and at Easter not even club rugby was properly under way in Joburg. So, not surprisingly, the Saints Rugby Festival caught the imagination of the rugby-loving public. Spectators turned out in force in those early years – it was the only show in town – although, to be honest, there have been decent crowds at the festival every year since, even when other events began to compete for the attention of spectators.

One of the unwritten rules of the event was that schools would be invited for two years at a time and then sit out. This was done so that the net could be spread and as many schools as possible could be involved. In the 36 years so far over 70 teams have appeared at the Saints Festival.

Having so many of the top players at the festival over the years has naturally led to quite a number of first class and international players who once played there. There have been 28 Springboks who played at the Saints Festival and four of them - Bob Skinstad (Hilton 1993/4), John Smit (Pretoria Boys’ High 1994); Schalk Burger (Paarl Gim 2000) and Warren Whitely (Glenwood 2005) – went on to captain the country.

Of the current crop of Springboks, Bongi Mbonambi (St Alban’s 2009), Sikhumbuzo Notshe (Wynberg 2010), Jason Jenkins (St Alban’s 2013) and Curwin Bosch (Grey High 2015) appeared at the festival.

It was just a matter of time before a success story like this was emulated and, not surprisingly, it was St Stithians’ big Joburg private schools rivals, St John’s who were next to organise a festival of their own, in 1996. King Edward, who had been a permanent fixture at the Saints Festival since its inception, and its biggest crowd drawcard, decided to excuse themselves for a year, in 2002, to celebrate the school’s centenary with an Easter festival of their own. It was such a success that they too decided to make it an annual event, the third one in Joburg.

Since then Easter festivals, and festivals at other times of the year, have sprung up all over the country and all are successful, showing that there are enough schools that play rugby that people want to watch.

But through it all, the Saints Festival continues to grow and flourish, a great long term success story.


Sunday, 28 March 2021

The Martin Ledwaba story

There's been a massive response in the media - mainstream and social - to the departure of Martin Ledwaba from Jeppe Boys last week.

His story is an amazing one - here's a summary of it that I wrote for the 2020 Jeppe High School for Boys Magazine last year:

The term “Mr Chips”, referring to a schoolmaster who has been at a school for a long time has become rather over-used and is often conferred on men who don’t really match up to the achievements of the fictitious Latin teacher, Mr Chipping, who the name originally referred to.

Chipping, according to James Hilton’s novel, taught at Brookfield School for 48 years and was 73 when he finally retired.

Match those numbers and you deserve the greeting “Goodbye, Mr Chips” when you leave. Well, we are saying goodbye to Martin Ledwaba this year and he not only matches those figures, he has surpassed them. 2020 was his 50th year at the school, and he turns 80 this year. Like Mr Chips did, he has seen four generations of boys from the same families pass through the school and, amazingly, he remembers the names of most of them.

Martin never occupied the post of teacher at the school, although he did qualify as a teacher in 2011, at the age of 71 – more of that later – but he was without question a great educator. He has had an enormous influence on thousands of Jeppe boys through the years and it is him, invariably, who they seek out when they visit the school as old boys later on.

His story has been told many times: he was employed as a cleaner, became an assistant in the science labs, began presenting an increasing number of lessons and stayed on long after retirement age as a valued member of the administrative staff. He filled the role of the venue manager for functions and events and of the keeper of the school keys – opening up at 4.30am each day and locking up when the last person has left at night and he has tidied up and packed everything away, sometimes at midnight.

Just how all of that came about is a fascinating story on its own. In short, it goes like this: Martin attended a mission school in Polokwane and left at the end of grade 10. He came to Joburg with his friend, Jones Mathane who was brought here by a Mr Stone, the science teacher at the mission, who got a job at Athlone Boys’ High, first, and then at Jeppe. He trained Jones to help him the labs and when he left for another school he took him with him.

So, there was an opening at Jeppe and, having heard about Martin, some teachers went to fetch him from the men’s outfitting store in Orange Grove where he was working. “The head of the science department was Mr McCloud, but he was on long leave and it was Mrs Brand who fetched me and gave me the job,” Martin recalled.

“That was in February 1971 and they put me on trial at first, eventually employing me full time in June that year,” he said. Appointing a black man in a classroom position wasn’t allowed at that time, of course, and he didn’t have a matric, so he was officially hired as a general worker. But he worked in the labs, setting up and demonstrating the experiments. The duties of opening and locking up and running functions were added on later so that he could earn more.

Martin had a thirst for knowledge, he would listen to the lessons that his experiments formed part of and, within a few years he was teaching the entire lessons to the classes.

“As I became an expert the boys began to respect me. I would help them and I built relationships with them. That has never changed. The Jeppe boys have always been kind to me, and have treated me with respect,” he said.

In 1975 he enrolled at Damelin to complete his schooling and over the next 13 years, one subject at a time, he eventually finished it. “I mostly taught myself,” he said. “But there were teachers who helped me in certain subjects. Mr Taffy Jones, who was retired by then, but stayed in the hostel, used to mark my assignments for me before I submitted them.”

In 1989, he matriculated and could be appointed lab assistant, although he had been doing the job for 18 years already. He wasn’t finished studying, though. In 1994 he started a National Diploma in Education through Unisa. He had to do the reading late at night when he had finished his work, as was the case with his matric, so it took him quite a few years, but in 2011 he graduated and was a qualified teacher – a job he had been basically doing for years already.

“I was 71 then, and too old to teach all day,” Martin said. “But that didn’t matter, qualifying was something I wanted to do and I showed that you are never too old to learn.”

At around the same time he stopped working in the labs but carried on his other duties and became an elder presence around the school, revered and respected by the teachers and learners and fondly remembered by four generation of old boys.

In 2003, when he officially retired from the Education Department, the school’s front steps were named the Martin Ledwaba Stairs. They are a monument to the role he played at the school.

We would have loved to have Martin Ledwaba here forever, but he deserves to rest now. He departs as a highly appreciated and deeply honoured man. He will be missed.

Goodbye, Mr Chips.

Friday, 12 March 2021

At Jeppe they name things after people

The news was received at Jeppe High School for Boys a few weeks ago that Dave Watson - an old boy and former parent - had succumbed to Covid-19.

Visiting staff and coaches to the school will all know that they are received and entertained in the Watson Pavilion, above the main rugby field. It was built with funds donated by Dave Watson and named after his late son.

They love naming things after people at Jeppe. Just about every structure has a name plate on it. It's a way of honouring past contributions and acknowledging present ones. There are the Martin Ledwaba stairs, for example, named after the legendary cleaner, turned lab assistant, turned teacher, turned school elder, who is leaving the school this year, aged 81, after 50 years of service.

Here's a column I wrote in The Saturday Star in 2010 about the unveiling of the Watson Pavilion and the naming of things at Jeppe.

Adriaan Strydom passed away a few years ago. I first met him in 1974. I  miss him. 

 A few weeks ago I attended the official opening of the new pavilion overlooking the rugby fields at Jeppe High School for Boys.

 It's a magnificent facility and it will be called the James Watson Pavilion, in memory of a boy who played first team rugby in 2000 and was headboy of one of the school's hostels. He was tragically killed in a motor car accident in 2005.

 He achieved some dubious fame in 2000 when he was airlifted to hospital after injuring his neck in a match against King Edward, and I remember writing at the time of how impressed I was at the professionalism with which the incident was dealt.

That whole affair must have been reassuring to parents concerned about their sons playing rugby.

The new pavilion is another example of how seriously sport is taken at Jeppe. When James's father Dave came with an offer to donate money to the school in his son's memory, the idea of creating a facility to benefit everyone in the sport was born.

Apart from the viewing deck up top where the dignitaries will sit, the building has new change rooms, toilets and a tuckshop. James's mother Jill had a lot to do with the design and she insisted that mothers who serve refreshments at matches are given a convenient and comfortable area to work in.

The opening ceremony was a dignified affair, and very touching.

Sport has always had a certain sentimentality about it. That's one of the things that makes it appealing. Sportspeople like to name things after people; it somehow gives a sense of permanence to those fleeting moments that enthralled us all.

As I stood on the deck of the James Watson Pavilion, I looked down on Jeppe's main rugby fields: Collard Field on the right and White Field in the left. Jack Collard and Jake White were the two most successful coaches in the school's rugby history - Collard in the 1950s and '60s when Wilf Rosenberg and Des Sinclair wore the black-and-white, and White in the '90s, when Jeppe ruled the Joburg roost.

We all know what White went on to achieve, while Collard stayed at the school until well after retirement age and had a profound influence on the lives of thousands of young men.

To the left of the new pavilion, above the astroturf hockey field - named after former coach Warren Boden -  is a hill called Collard's Folly. It is made up of the sand and rubble that was removed to level the area when those rugby fields were first laid.

Collard's idea, apparently, was to put cricket nets up there and have the boys practice with the best view in Joburg. Unfortunately, he never reckoned on the pile subsiding so the net surfaces cracked and eventually disappeared - hence the name of the hill.

My old friend Adriaan Strydom, as loyal an old boy, ex-parent and supporter of Jeppe as any school could have, tells me there is also a Jake's folly. While he was the coach at the school, White decided it would be a good idea to create an area for the exclusive use of the first team to warm up in - an early sign of the sort of attention to detail and player-centric attitude that was to bring him so much success later on.

So, an area was cleared below the old swimming pool, but it turned out to be too small for the backs to run their moves on, and it was too much out of the way. So it is now a weed-choked patch of ground called Jake's Folly. It's still out of the way, but as the shadow of Collard's Folly fell across Collard and White fields that afternoon, it could be clearly seen from the deck of the new James Watson Pavilion. 

Monday, 21 December 2020

Sometimes rugby really is the winner

As an antidote to all the things I find abhorrent in the way school sport is going, I list some of the good things I've come across in my nearly finished book on what's wrong with the way we define winning.

Here I retell something I saw one Wednesday afternoon in Joburg

I tried to make a point of reporting on as wide a range of schools as possible in my Saturday Star School Sport days, and that meant trawling around on Wednesday afternoon for matches to go to. The top sports schools play their games on Saturdays and it was easy to cover them. They publicised their fixtures in advance and some of them even had PR and publicity departments who would keep us informed about what was going on. That didn’t apply to all schools and on some Wednesdays I would drive to the various schools in one part of town, hoping to stumble upon some action.

It was on one of those winter Wednesdays that I found myself at Roosevelt High School. They were playing Greenside in a Kudu league fixture. The Kudu league was created by those small schools when they found themselves, in a rugby sense, no longer able to compete with the bigger schools in terms of numbers. The Roosevelt vs Greenside encounter was once a massive local derby attracting bumper crowds, not any more, but at least, I thought, the game was surviving at the two schools.

There were only a handful of matches on the day, and the standard wasn’t as high as what you’ll see on a Saturday, but the field was in great condition, the players were neatly turned out and the games were evenly contested.

When the first teams ran out they were made up, as I’d expected, entirely of black players and there were some impressive physical specimens on both sides. Then the referee appeared and that’s when it became something special – she was a petite white woman with a shock of red hair.

I snapped a few photographs as the game got under way - that’s why I was there – but then I settled back and watched as the conventional rugby story was rewritten before my eyes. Those hulking young men accepted the decisions of the referee unconditionally, they were disciplined and polite and called her ma’am. The ref knew her stuff and was brilliant in her handling of the players. It was one of the best regulated games I’d seen for a long time and I can’t recall a single unsavoury moment.

Rugby is surviving at schools were the demographic makeup has radically changed. Black boys in Joburg do love the game and they can play it well. A woman can referee a mens game very well, and the intrinsic disciplines imposed by the letter and the spirit of the laws of the game are observed, no matter how different the players and the official may be to each other.

I can’t remember who won the match, but the game of rugby came out pretty well on the day. Don’t tell me it’s not a great educational activity.

Friday, 18 December 2020

No cricket this week, so Morgan's spending his birthday at home


If it wasn’t for Covid-19 I’d almost certainly be at the Khaya Majola cricket week today watching and reporting on the cream of our under-19 talent. It turned out not to be, which means I got to spend the week before Christmas at home, something I can’t remember doing for a very long time.

That’s one good thing I guess, and another one is that two of the giants of the week, Niels Momberg, CSA’s director of youth cricket, and Morgan Pillay, the permanent organising secretary of the tournament, won’t be working on their birthdays. It was Niels’ birthday on the 17th and it’s Morgan’s today.

Ordinarily, they would have be at the festival this week, as they have been every year, for years. Let’s hope the year off will refresh them both and keep them coming back for more. The Khaya Majola Week is an extraordinary tournament, the jewel in the crown of school sport in this country, and having administrators like these two in charge of it makes it that.

Morgan is by 100 miles the best sports administrator I have come across in my 30 years of involvement in school sport. I told him that when I write my book one day he will be in it. Well, I’m on it, and here’s the bit on Morgan:  

I have attended the under-19 Khaya Majola Cricket Week (and its predecessor, the Nuffield Week) just about every year since 1989. At the 1994 week, hosted at Kearsney College I met a young teacher from Pietermaritzburg, Morgan Pillay. He was on the local organising committee, tasked with keeping track of the state of play in the various matches being played around the area, so he worked quite closely with the media who were there. It was the beginning of a friendship which has gone on for 30 years now and in that time I watched Morgan grow into the best sports administrator I have ever come across and one of the most valuable people in schools cricket in the country.

He has been the permanent organising secretary of the Khaya Majola Week since 1996. It’s an honorary position – he doesn’t get paid anything more than expenses for doing it – and he has kept his real job as a mathematics teacher all along. The tournament is just a week long, but organising it is an all-year affair, so it’s amazing that he has found the time to do it for so many years.

 He has fine-tuned the running of the event over the years to the extent that it runs like clockwork now. The wheel isn’t re-invented every year. Morgan’s personality and his unique style of leadership – he is incredibly demanding, but makes those demands with so much charm that it’s impossible to say no – is what makes it work. 

Morgan’s birthday, December 18th, always falls slap bang in the middle of the week, so he’s never home for it. He says it’s tough being away from home, but then he does get to spend his birthday every year surrounded by great friends and in the service of the youth.

Happy birthday Morgan Pillay – a sports administrator who is in it for the right reasons, as is Niels Momberg. Oh that there were more of them in cricket!