OPINION | Craven Week will be missed, not just by schoolboys

Craven Week (Gallo Images)
Craven Week (Gallo Images)

At 07:00, former Bulls lock Mthunzi "Fudge" Mabeta, last year's SA Schools and Academy coaches Mziwakhe Nkosi and Phiwe Nomlomo, and I gathered on the grandstand of the main rugby fields at Grey College.

Bloemfontein always has sub-zero temperatures this time of the year, and at that time of the morning. But we were on a mission to unpack the enormity of the week that had unfolded into a thrilling crescendo.

The sun was hesitantly breaking through and the hands in our pockets had only a semblance of warmth on what felt like frozen fingertips. In the background, quietly taking pictures and listening to our podcast recording, was top sports journalist Morgan Piek, at whose place I had asked to crash.

The biting cold was the least of my worries coming to the annual provincial schoolboy tournament the Craven Week. I left Johannesburg driving my wife's car with just about enough money to fill one tank and buy some coffee along the way.

I was waiting for invoices to clear which, as is often the case with the freelance writing life, kept me on edge for most of the week leading up to Craven Week.

After crossing the Grasmere toll gate, I made a distress call to a mate in Lesotho to loan me just the right amount to buy food in Bloemfontein and petrol for the trip back. I packed a blanket and a pillow, just in case.

Morgan and his wife, Mary-Lou, saved the day in terms of shelter but the catch was that I'd have to sleep in their five-year-old boy Ruben's bunk bed. The kid slept with the folks, of course, and there I was, a 184cm tall, 90kg man, scrunched up in a quarter-sized bed.

I felt like the hungover friend in the Chicken Licken "Morning After" advert who wakes up thinking he's a giant after noticing his feet dangling from the edge of the bed, the tiny tots shoes next to it and the mini-sliders on the mini-dining table.

But I would have gone to any lengths to go to Craven Week last year. Something in me – call it "FOMO" or journalistic curiosity – told me this was not the Craven Week to miss.

I'd watched plenty on television but attended only a few over the years as a journalist, primarily because big media houses don't see the value of sending journalists to cover it in different cities every year. If there's no one on staff or a stringer on call in the town where it's held, they will pass.

Luckily, last year I answered to no one (except my wife, of course). So, I went anyway, with no money in my pocket and bunking in Ruben's room.

I wasn't wrong about the tournament. Western Province's A and B sides dominated, predictably, and there were strong performances by the Blue Bulls and KwaZulu-Natal.

But seeing Nomlomo's Border beat Nkosi's Golden Lions was something quite special. That it was two young, black African coaches, guiding some of the most talented schoolboys this country has, made it even more so.

After the match ended in a thrilling 39-36 Border win, Nomlomo and Nkosi watched the following game together, chatting as mates like always, showing great respect and sportsmanship even after an emotional roller coaster of a match.

Back on the grandstand on that cold Saturday morning, the discussion was about the week that unfolded – the genius of Geraldo Flusk, the pizzazz of Zeilinga Strydom, the guile of Jacques Goosen, the jive of Sibusiso Javu and the sheer presence of Jan-Hendrik Wessels.

The conversation also touched, at length, on the meaning of Craven Week and whether it still had its place in rugby's ever-changing ecosystem.

The overwhelming feeling was, yes, it certainly still did. Even as parsimonious previous sponsors Coca-Cola pulled out, and the financial threat to the 2020 Port Elizabeth edition loomed large, it didn't seem like we would go without seeing the finest schoolboys the country has to offer.

But the coronavirus pandemic had other ideas. It robbed the kids (including those who played in the Under-13, Grant Khomo and LSEN Weeks) of an opportunity to one day say that they had played in it. It doesn't guarantee success in professional rugby, not by any means, but it gives kids a taste of what it would be like.

It gives underprivileged ones a chance to shine in nationally-televised games and perhaps get a scholarship to study and play for one of the Varsity Cup and Shield teams. And it gives young coaches, such as Nkosi and Nomlomo, who have progressed into the senior Lions and Sharks coaching ranks since, a chance to show that skin colour is no barrier to one's ability to coach.

Heck, it gives grown men a chance to watch the game at one of its purest levels. It will be missed, and not only by the kids.

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