Schoolboy rugby – Are we losing the plot

Schoolboy rugby – Are we losing the plot?

With everything going on at the moment in the school boy rugby world, one would be forgiven for asking the question, “Are we losing the plot”? It’s time we stepped back and re-examined what rugby is all about and why we encourage our sons to play. Rugby, and sport in general, has a lot to offer our children and their development, but it needs to be played in the right spirit, for the right reasons and in the right environment.  Unfortunately, I believe, many of these elements are lacking in school boy rugby in this country and we really are “losing the plot”.

Consider the state of the game at the moment:

  • Some schools entice talented players from all around the country with significant financial reward offered in the form of bursaries, accommodation, kit and even cash
  • Players from disadvantaged communities are displaced from their homes and exploited
  • On the other end of the spectrum, streetwise star players and ambitious parents work the system to their financial advantage and barter unashamedly for the most lucrative sports scholarships
  • Poaching of players is more prevalent than is recognised or acknowledged, often to the detriment of “smaller” schools
  • Over age players deliberately “fudge” their ID books to make the U19 cut off for school rugby
  • Many boys resort to the use of illegal and dangerous anabolic steroids to bulk up for the game
  • The use of often dubious sports supplements is widespread and fuelled by an industry that is subject to limited policing; a situation that is often taken advantage of
  • The “glorification” of first team players is not in anyone’s interests, especially the individuals concerned
  • The perceived quality of a school is often based on its first team’s success on the rugby field
  • Overseas rugby tours and high performance programmes erode into some schools academic calendars
  • Reports of refs being assaulted and abused by players, parents and coaches alike are becoming more frequent, as are brawls amongst the players themselves
  • Directors of rugby are appointed by governing bodies and paid salaries way in excess of their academic peers

Can we really say that our schoolboy rugby is healthy and the game promoted at this level for the right reasons and in the right manner?  Fortunately the elements highlighted above tend to apply to the more senior and elite schoolboy teams, and thankfully not to all schools. Neil Mitchell provides some sound advice in an article he wrote previously in a newsletter: “Sports should fit into the vision and mission of a school, and not the other way round. Sports administrators, coaches, parents, board members and staff should be in a partnership in which all subscribe to the school’s vision and mission alike … Sport is an indispensable part of a holistic curriculum and has much to recommend it, and there are many valuable lessons to be learnt from it. But, as with most things in life, it’s a matter of balance and perspective.” I think we have lost the necessary balance and perspective when it comes to rugby, and strangely, this appears to be a uniquely South African phenomenon.  Instead of molding our sons into well rounded men of value, we focus too much on simply striving to develop successful rugby players.

While I am all for being competitive and teaching our sons to be winners, what happened to the game once espoused by the Rugby Football Union: “Remember, rugby is a game played for fun, to make friends; it is not so much the winning or the losing but the PLAYING that is important.  This is especially so with young people; encourage them to enjoy themselves; to win with modesty, as if used to it; to lose with dignity so that after the game the fun continues and the friendships are created. 

The successful coach is concerned more with the well-being and interests of the players than in their win-loss record”.