Make schoolboy rugby about entertainment

TANK LANNING believes this spat between Durban schools reinforces the fact that schoolboy rugby should not be all about winning.

As we ease our way into a new rugby season and the excitement levels build for that first ‘real’ game, so do a few concerns surrounding the game in general return …

Player welfare and management, how to keep varsity and club rugby amateur, what to do about trying to create a global season, the selection of overseas-based players for the Springboks … to name but a few.

But this current spat in Durban that might see two of the region’s biggest boys’ high schools not play first-team sport against each other due to accusations of unethical sportsmanship, puts the spotlight firmly on what I believe to be a primary problem area – schoolboy rugby.

In short, the dispute surrounds schools objecting to Glenwood fielding SA Schools prop Marne Coetzee, whom they recruited from Waterkloof, in a 1st XV rugby match last year. Glenwood have been accused of breaking an agreement that major rugby-playing schools had with one another regarding fielding U19 players who had not progressed through the school’s ranks.

An agreement obviously aimed at stopping the recruitment of schoolboy players and fielding schoolboys who do post-matric only for rugby reasons. That they had to enter into this agreement is proof itself of the problem facing schoolboy rugby.

Classic Clashes on SuperSport, school rankings every Monday, schoolboy jerseys carrying not just one main sponsor, but a few minor ones as well, coaches abusing referees after games, agents taking on schoolboy players and negotiating bursaries at top schools, 15 000-plus crowds at big games, parents and coaches encouraging steroid use … Schoolboy rugby borders on being professional!

Hence Saru’s recent regulation stating that unions may only contract players over the age of 18, and that the recruiting of players at Craven Week is now forbidden. Also incoming is the testing of schoolboy rugby players for performance enhancing drugs.

Schoolboys!

It’s no wonder that a few of them come out of school thinking that rugby owes them a favour. And having coached at U20 level, I have seen a few of these prima donnas come properly unstuck when having to take on the local club side on a cabbage patch of a field at 12:30 in front of just their parents and a single flea-infested dog.

But more importantly, by giving schoolboy rugby so much of the spotlight, focusing on results in leagues, and making the weekly rankings such a big thing, I believe we are teaching these guys to play ‘winning’ rugby rather than focusing on skills and encouraging them to have a go from anywhere on the field.

John Plumtree, a coach who has worked with some of New Zealand’s and South Africa’s best players, had this to say about the difference between South Africa and New Zealand in a recent article by Mark Keohane:

‘If there was a difference I’d say there’s more pressure in South Africa at schoolboy level to win because of the rivalry between the major rugby playing schools, whereas in New Zealand there is a greater focus at schoolboy level on playing good rugby. The pressure here would be to win at all costs; there the pressure would be in the skills evolution of a player at schools level.’

And he is absolutely spot on!

Talent we have in spades, but many SA coaches are bemoaning the lack of skill in our players – simple things like being able to pass to the right, get one’s arms through the tackle to offload, side step and set up a switch … And I believe this is because schoolboys are now playing the box kick and chase, take the points via a sharp shooter kind of game.

But schoolboy rugby should be about enjoying the game and scoring brave 85m tries using daring skills in a festival-type environment. And in the process producing highly skilled players who can then choose whether or not to have a go at the professional game.

Pro coaches will then have more rounded players at their disposal, and might be more inclined to play a more exiting brand of rugby. But perhaps more importantly, those players heading to the more relaxed club environment, won’t have such massive expectations, and will continue to play the game.

Look, one can’t blame the schoolboys themselves. Everyone likes a little attention. So this is going to have to come from the governing bodies, provinces and schools themselves.

How about banning rankings, disallowing branding on schoolboy kit, banning the drop kick, making tries worth six points, and making penalties and conversions worth one point, and selecting teams for the televised games based on the amount of tries they score and style of play?