The importance of being earnest about rugby

2013-04-13 00:00

AS autumn settles in across the country and cricket leaves the landscape, we are reminded by our television screens that the sporting seasons have become so intermingled that nature’s course no longer determines what we watch at the highest levels of athletic endeavour.

At schools, of course, it is a different matter. This is now rugby season, that time which seems to have become the defining term of the year at far too many schools in this country. There is a superb American television series called Friday Night Lights, which is a drama set round the overriding importance of football in American schools. This five-series show, only part of which was shown on local television, uses the fanaticism of football in small America to illustrate the many moral and life choices facing modern teenagers and their families.

When I first saw the show several years ago, I felt it was peculiar to the United States, where football has been such a dominant part of school life in those smaller towns that are particularly susceptible to the fortunes of the American economy. When times are bad, the role of football assumes an even greater importance in these communities.

Such an imbalance of priorities could never happen in South Africa, I thought, notwithstanding rugby’s long-time role as some kind of arbitrary barometer of a school’s standing among those folk who are close to school sport. Rugby has always been an important element in the winter life of many schools, but, I believed, a healthy balance was by and large achieved even in those schools where success at rugby seems to have been built into the fabric of the institution.

Now I am not so sure. Rugby appears to be gaining an importance that could threaten the vital balance that is so essential to a quality educational institution. The seeds of this growth in the importance of the game may have been unwittingly sown by St Stitians College when it came up with the idea of its Easter rugby festival all those years ago. So successful was this festival in terms of raising both the profile of the school and a surprising bounty of money that it has eventually been aped all round the country.

For many people, Easter is no longer a period of religious contemplation, but rather the time for the biggest sporting and social occasion in the school calendar. Well before summer is spent, many South African schools go into rugby mode in preparation for these festivals.

The top schools that are not themselves acting as hosts receive attractive financial incentives to ensure their participation as festival draw card. Easter has become the unofficial opening of the school rugby season. Performances at the festivals are closely watched by old boys, parents both actual and prospective, rugby scouts both local and international, and the media both print and electronic. Success brings to schools no trophies but important bragging rights and the possibility of swollen waiting lists.

The desire of schools to achieve success on the rugby field has been accompanied by the sorts of problems associated with professional sport. The fiercer the matches, the greater are the chances of serious injury, often of a long-term debilitating nature; the use of growth hormones and other dodgy supplements have become commonplace enough for some schools to introduce strict drug-testing regimes; behaviour at matches is often less than gracious; the recruitment and awarding of scholarships to promising rugby players is on the increase.

Now, I hear, that the old boys of one school, not far from Maritzburg but close to my heart, have contracted a former Sharks player to coach the first 15 at a seven-figure salary which is greater than that of any teacher at the school, including the principal.

By the time this story reached me on the beaches of Plettenberg Bay, a further seven-figure bonus is rumoured to be on the line if the first 15 are able to beat the school’s arch rival.

I am unsure of what sort of message this sends to the 470 boys and their parents who are not attached to the school’s elite rugby squad, and to the principal and his teachers as well as to prospective pupils and their parents. To whom does such a coach report, his paymasters or the principal? If, in early March, such a coach wants boys from the first cricket 11 for a rugby practice, who is to settle the ensuing conflict of interest? Will this coach play a role in the admission of pupils to the school? Who would determine the outcome of any dispute between the rugby coach and the principal? Were the school governors on board with the appointment of the coach? Was the principal? I would imagine that there are other issues just as troubling. Is rugby success worth the potential upheaval?

Perhaps the whole story is simply not true, although I cannot imagine the bush telegraph getting wrong something of such import.

The message of Friday Night Lights is that for the boys themselves success on the football field is rarely a precursor to a happy life thereafter. Mostly, last year’s heroes have already played their final games of football. Although some of them have found places in good colleges, for many the future is bleak. For the parents, teachers and local townsfolk, success lingers a while, but the new season is soon upon them with all its fresh hopes and fears.

The ancient Greeks knew a thing or two about balance. Perhaps some schools need to revisit the lessons of classical life and thought.

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