Mind Games: Why SA rugby is where it is

2014-02-02 14:00

One of the best innovations in local sport, particularly in rugby, has been the introduction of the Varsity Cup on Monday evenings.

Designed to revitalise university rugby, the competition has achieved exactly what it set out to do.

The TV slot works like a charm and the once-waning student participation in the game has been revived.

But most of all, there is an element of sheer fun.

Campus grounds are abuzz for Varsity Cup matches and what stands out is how many black students, especially young ladies, turn up and appear to not only have a good time, but also relish the contests.

This rejuvenation of university rugby has restored an important tier in the overall development of the game in that it builds on one of the key reasons for South Africa being so successful in rugby: our well-organised and highly competitive schools structure.

Thousands of schoolboys play rugby on any given Saturday and there are beacons of excellence for them to achieve at every age.

There is little doubt that schools rugby keeps the Springboks strong and it is hardly surprising that in the aftermath of yet another failure by Bafana Bafana, fingers have been pointed at the fact that at most of the leading boys’ schools and many long-established government schools, rugby is dominant.

At most of these schools, soccer isn’t even an option.

Citing the imperative of greater numbers, demands have been made that soccer should be introduced at these schools so that the national soccer team will feel the benefit.

This obviously makes sense but the logic is flawed because for schools to merely start playing soccer is to misunderstand rugby’s model.

It is accepted that rugby was introduced to South Africa by Canon George Ogilvie when he became the headmaster of Diocesan College (Bishops) in Cape Town.

He had in mind that the inherent hardness of the game, the fact that it made provision for all shapes and sizes and its emphasis on teamwork was the perfect vehicle for rumbustious teenagers to not only let off some steam but to also learn valuable life skills.

British missionaries and army regiments played a key role in spreading the game along the coast and into the interior.

The physical demands of rugby meshed well with the pioneering spirit of the time, but sadly the racial prejudices of the age would also be inculcated.

The history of black rugby can be traced to around the same era as it was played at missionary schools, but sadly the colour bar and the notion of separate development that would haunt South Africa for so many years was already in place.

In time, the human need for competition resulted in interschool matches, resulting in rugby becoming an extremely well-organised game with teams at every age level competing against each other.

This was extended to interprovincial competitions, the awarding of colours and the inevitable desire to step up to senior competition and perhaps national representation.

To become a Springbok was the underpinning dream of every youngster who ever handled an oval ball and over the course of more than a century, the top level of rugby played at schools would result in South Africa’s pre-eminence in the game globally.

It was the organisation, the vision and the desire to be the best that was key, and that is why it is my contention that to simply introduce soccer to traditional rugby schools is destined to fail.

Rather introduce better organisation, better facilities and better coaching to schools and in areas where soccer is already the dominant game, give kids encouragement, introduce interschool and interprovincial tournaments, and put in place rewards for excellence.

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