SA Schools Rugby Challenge raises red flags

2019-12-03T08:13:16+02:00December 1st, 2019|

A formal competition for South Africa’s top rugby schools would be all about winning, writes THEO GARRUN. And that is a problem.

According to reports on Sunday, there’s going to be an SA Schools Rugby Challenge competition from 2021, involving the eight ‘top’ schools in the land in a 13-team per school league, with points awarded and a champion school determined.

ALSO READ: Top SA rugby schools to compete for national crown

Many South African sports fans seem to be obsessed with the idea that every sporting activity needs to be run as a formal competition, with an eventual winner being determined. I get that; there’s certainly little point in playing a game if winning is not the aim.

I do believe, however, that organising sport at schools along those lines is wrong. Schools are educational institutions and their sports activities are part of their educational programmes, that’s non-negotiable. There are way too many examples of the things that can go wrong when winning rather than development becomes the dominant value.

And the SA Schools Challenge will be about winning. That raises all sorts of red flags and the biggest one is that it will focus and amplify the identification and recruitment of the top talent available and further funnel it into a handful of schools.

The fact that the preliminary statement put out by the organisers speaks of excluding players who begin at a school after the first few weeks of their Grade 11 year shows that they anticipate that player movement between schools and poaching can be an issue. However, the fact that this exclusion only applies to the U19 section shows that they don’t object to the practice in principle, they just want to regulate the timing of it.

There hasn’t been any talk of prize money or TV coverage but I’m sure that those are on the agenda. It’s going to be so important to the schools involved to win that they will have to ensure that they have the right players in their ranks. And that, recent history has shown, has resulted in a scorched-earth approach to talent identification with little concern for the schools that the recruited players come from.

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The attempt by the competition’s spokesperson to show that it isn’t an elitist exercise because the schools will use other, lesser, rugby schools as ‘fillers’ when they can’t meet their fixture obligations, apart from being condescending and patronising, is surely dangerous to those schools. Won’t they be giving the top school a good look at their players? And for how long will they be retaining the best of them?

There are two reasons for running a rugby programme at a school: to further educate your learners via the sport, and to promote the development of the sport on a wider scale. Doing what it will take to be successful in a competition such as this one will meet neither of those requirements.

It isn’t a single story, of course. Schools do have an obligation to give their star performers every opportunity to shine. A few of them may have a future as professional players and they need all of them to act as role models and motivators for the younger players coming through.

This leads me to another issue. Craven Week, the platform on which the stars were seen in the past, is under threat. It was also reported on Sunday that the future of the interprovincial schools week is in doubt.

ALSO READ: Craven Week could be cancelled

It’s about sponsorship, SA Rugby says, but the week was losing relevance in the eyes of the top schools anyway. The emphasis has moved to development, with increasingly stringent quotas being introduced, leaving fewer and fewer places for white players. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, in fact, it’s probably right, but Craven Week is not what it used to be.

It’s led to festivals like the Wildeklawer and the various North-South long weekends becoming more and more prestigious. Given that schools have a responsibility to their top players, they support events like those where they play against the other top ones. Those are festivals, without winners, though. Hence the SA Schools Rugby Challenge.

There are going to be some great games to watch, but not, I suspect, much ethical education on show.

– Garrun is a veteran South African schools rugby writer. Follow him on Twitter.