Rugby is my passion, but I am especially fond of schoolboy and junior rugby. My biggest fear is that we have lost a generation of young rugby players due to the Covid pandemic. Let’s look at what did not happen over the last two seasons and the possible (probable) impact on junior rugby. Then we need to look at the knock- on effect it may have on South African rugby in general.
Primary Schools have played very little to no rugby at all over the past two years. Normally an U/13 player leaves school as a well-coached, competition hardened individual. They understand the context of being team players, and they have developed an impressive set of skills. When these players get into high school, coaches of U/14 teams have only a few issues to sort out. Many players, especially good ones, play in the wrong position in primary school. This is because coaches tend to play them in positions close to the ball to score more points. Step one for any coach of U/14 teams is to ensure that these players are evaluated, and correctly placed. It is often very rewarding to see a huge (and slightly slow!) inside center transition with ease to a great number eight. And short stocky flanks become great hookers.
Once positions have been sorted and anxious fathers appeased that it is the correct position for young Cheslin, the next step is to get the primary school rivalry out of them and convince them and their parents that they all play for the same team now. After that skills, fitness and game plan can follow. By the time these players reach U/16, all coaches will have a very good idea of which players will make the grade, and where the seniors will be left with a chink in the armor. This is naturally followed by a two-week buying spree at provincial U/ 16 tournaments. Most schools will deny this and try to convince you that they merely explained to parents and players that their school is just a better one!!
Fact is that these players will be ready for senior schoolboy rugby. Fact is that at the end of this year we will sit with a whole generation of under 14 and under 15 players who have not gone through this development phase.
You will often hear in reference to players that they have been in the system for some time. The system at entry level starts inside provinces where talent is often identified during u/12 tournaments. These players become part of the provincial system and will be the basis of the following year’s Craven Week team. During the Craven Week players are placed on the watch list in so called Green and Gold squads. They are evaluated during the year to monitor growth, skills and development. As players fall out of contention and new players are added, this group firms up towards Grant Khomo U/16 tournament. It is safe to say that after that tournament selectors will have a 70% indication of players that will ultimately make it to the SA Schools squad. Obviously this is confirmed at the annual Craven Week for High Schools.
Fact is that no squads could be identified at primary school level. Fact is that for two years there was also no Grant Khomo week, and no early identification of 15 and 16 year old future stars. Fact is that for two years there was no Craven Week for high schools either. In effect, a huge void was created in the national under 18 talent pool.
If one considers the fact that first team and provincial rugby often forms the basis of bursaries from tertiary institutions, one must admit that it had a near disastrous effect on hundreds of schoolboys over the past two years. Add to this the fact that the Young Guns tournament has been cancelled as well over the past two years, and we can immediately spot the conundrum. SA junior rugby is effectively in big trouble, and with that solid base gone, senior rugby will feel the pain as well in the next year or two.
How can this blow be softened? I am not normally a negative person, but a few wrong approaches immediately come to mind.
a. Primary school coaches are going to identify players within the school and throw those names in a hat. Since there have been no tournaments at all, the natural tendency here will be to look at feeder schools for big names in schoolboy rugby. As an example, primary schools feeding Monnas, Boys High, Grey and so on will form the basis of these pseudo squads. That potential Mapimpi in the poor township school will be missed.
b. If one follows the logic, the same will happen at U/16 level. It stands to reason that a coach nominating a player from Boys High will easily get his charges into a system, whereas the equally talented player in Cape Flats will be missed. Same thing will happen in all other provinces.
c. In the absence of all Craven Weeks, a squad thus constructed will be the nucleus of next year’s national under 20 team.
d. Young players will only be spotted if coaches have enough courage to pull them straight into Varsity First teams as 18 year old's, or into Currie Cup sides at 19 and 20. Where it will work for a Henco van Wyk for instance, a young Kolisi or Tsitsuka will have to wait until they can play again to prove their worth.
Fact is, we have missed out on real talent in two generations of under 13, 16 and 18 players. Fact is we missed out on real talent in two generations of under 21 Varsity players.
I do not profess to have the ultimate solution, but I think a good start is for our management structures to acknowledge the problem and get into a think tank with all potential role players.
I have a few off-the-wall ideas that I can share, and hopefully a lot of other supporters and stakeholders can make contributions as well. So here goes:
a. Clubs and schools will have to cooperate far better than they have done in the past. Clubs will have to accept that development of players is more important to the province than winning a tournament with established players. I therefore propose that schools should provide clubs with names of all A and B team players at school, as well as all first team squad members. These players should not be eligible to play underage club rugby. Clubs will be forced into a development role.
b. I fully understand the cost implications, but I believe that stakeholders with their hearts in the right place will come forward with funding. I therefore propose that, for the next 6-8 months, all first team primary school matches in all leagues are played on a Saturday, on one club field. Primary Schools selectors will have to attend these matches and start building squads based on talent, instead of school nominations.
c. Same goes for Under 16 and under 18 schools matches. The nationally sponsored big school games like Grey/ Affies, Boys High/ Gym and so on can continue, as those players will get exposure on that platform.
d. Most contentious is that I think next year’s Craven weeks should be held sooner than July and based on structures that were in place prior to 1994. All big unions should be allowed two squads per tournament, and smaller unions split out to get as many players as possible in front of selectors. It means that Mpumalanga for instance will have a Lowveld team, and a Highveld Team(The former Suid Oos Transvaal). Likewise, the glory days of Eastern Free State, Vaal Triangle and Northern Natal to name a few can be relived one more time.
e. Varsity Cup should make a rule for one season only that forces under 20 players to play for Young Guns
f. To cast the net as wide as possible, I suggest that 2nd team tournaments like the one hosted by Monnas should be encouraged and funded.
Maybe I overestimate the problem. Maybe the administrators have it all under control and we are unaware of it. Maybe these suggestions are impractical and too costly, but hopefully it can trigger a thought process that will add value. Maybe we are so complacent with our current talent pool that no one is concerned.
Fact is, I am troubled by this issue: Have we lost two generations of rugby players, and can we recover these most unfortunate Covid Kids?