I watched a live streamed spectator-less schoolboy rugby game recently. It’s a feature of the Covid times we live in, as well perhaps our obsession with school sport. The commentary was littered with references to the military, leadership and being a man. Words and phrases like ‘troops’, ‘battle’, ‘real men’, ‘command’, ‘lead’, and ‘big man’ abounded.
My eyes started rolling at this point. At times, the commentary was more an essay on the virtues of physical masculinity than it was the description of a game between schoolboys. For me it reveals something of our obsession with school sport in general and rugby in particularly.
Rugby Football Union is a great game and holds its place among many other great games. However, listening to some in school and/or rugby communities its virtues are elevated way above what it can reasonably be expected to deliver. Rugby’s mythical status as a vehicle to build character, develop leaders, and turn boys into men is often trotted out by otherwise sane people.
It is a seductive promise that taps straight into the South African psyche. With that comes the belief that the better the rugby team the better the school, and hey presto your 1st XV are now a marketing tool. Cue a disproportionate amount of money, time and resources thrown at the game.
Boys have already misidentified sport as a path to masculinity and rugby as the fast-track option. As such it has special status. For example, only the selected elect can step onto the first team field once it is demarcated at the start of the season. Many boys would rather play for a lower rugby team than a higher hockey side such is the credibility rugby confers. Now add to this the fact that the top players in the top schools will be on high-definition display as part of Super Sports new school’s coverage deal. It is a heady mix.
3 signs your school is becoming a rugby academy
One in the school rugby community who has kept his head through all this is Allan Miles, who has been involved with school’s rugby in the Eastern Cape for two decades. In his convincing article ‘Schoolboy rugby capture’, he wrote that schoolboy rugby has been captured by the money men and those with an obsession with winning.
Miles contends that today rugby academies are masquerading as school 1st XV’s. You can read his full article here, but I have pulled from it three signs that your school could be turning into a rugby academy.
- There will be a lot of big boys walking around campus that you don’t recognize
‘There is a mind-set that creates the perception that the only way a 1st XV can achieve results is to ‘buy’ players.’, says Miles. Thus, schools literally ‘beef up’ their teams by bringing in players in Grade 10 or 11 once puberty has done its work, and they know what gaps need filling in the team. Coaching cannot create size, so these boys are often very big. ‘Schools continue to disguise their rugby bursary programs as giving a better opportunity to the underprivileged player.’ Be in no doubt lots of money is spent on these programmes. ‘The values that our schools were founded upon have been lost’, says Miles.
2. Your school gym is now a High-Performance Centre
Your gym may or may not have been rebranded, but ‘high performance’ is a phrase you will hear banded about in boys’ schools a lot. In his 2020 article, ‘The Growth of High Performance in School Sport’, Neil Rollings points out that specialist coaching appeared around 20 years ago and swiftly became an arms race between schools. Hot on its heels came the ‘conditioning revolution’.
‘Ambition is an indisputably positive quality’, acknowledges Rollings which makes the concept of high performance difficult to argue against, until we remember we are dealing with juveniles. Young people need spaces to grow and develop, to fail and learn from failure. This is at odds with an expectation of almost professional high performance, where you and your errors must survive constant action replay.
Miles also tackles this approach, ‘The high-performance model that has been adopted by many schools often does not cater for students academically and it can end up having an adverse effect on their academic performance…’. It is not only academics that suffer. Downtime, sleep and friendships are also sacrificed on this alter. Rollings concludes, “It would be a sad day indeed if the Stakhanovite pursuit of high performance eclipsed the enjoyment of playing with friends as the primary purpose of school sport.”
3. There will be an ex rugby pro or two in the staff room
‘Parents and supporters have truly become obsessed. No teacher/coach is ever good enough to coach their child. Schools are being forced to continually search for someone from the outside.’ writes Miles. He goes on to say, ‘There is a huge misunderstanding of the actual role of coaching, especially at a schoolboy level. Teaching is a fundamental tenant of coaching. As a teacher you need to have the welfare of the kids in mind.’ England coach Eddie Jones concurs ‘It’s a fundamental flaw in education, kids need to be taught and don’t need to be coached at an early age,’.
Nevertheless, while the professional coaches take their seats in the staff room, the siren call of a winning 1st XV and all that goes with it, drown out that nagging voice in your head whispering that we have lost the plot. The voice of reason kicked firmly into touch.
Reauthenticate school rugby
Rugby does not have some supernatural ability to build character, develop leaders or make men. Conversely, the status it is elevated to by our communities, and the semi deification of those who play it, can have (have had) exactly the opposite effect.
With all educational activities it is teachers who draw out the lessons and make explicit the benefits for the participants. Likewise, it is experienced and qualified teachers who ameliorate the pressure by exposing teens to what they can cope with and shielding them from that which they are not ready. Be it in the math classroom, the choir stalls or on the rugby field.
Schools need to reauthenticate school rugby by putting it back in the hands of those who know how to use it for good. As Eddie Jones says, ‘The connection that you need to make with a player is important. Teachers know how to make these connections. These connections can be lost when you start forcing schoolboys into a high-performance environment.’
Read Theo Garrun’s considered response to this article here ‘Professionalisation of Schools Rugby‘ Theo is the former editor of the Saturday Star School Sports Supplement.
References and futher reading
Schoolboy rugby capture – Allan Miles
The Growth of High Performance in School Sport – Neil Rollings
Schoolboy rugby capture is real in South Africa – Mark Keohane
The cost of winning – Tim Jarvis
Age of destruction – Stefan Terblanche