Is School­boy Rugby Still for Boys?

SLOW Magazine - - Contents - Text: Michael Vlis­mas Im­age © istockphoto.com

The sports world loves the David ver­sus Go­liath anal­ogy, and rugby is no ex­cep­tion. How­ever, the one hand­i­cap for most school­boy rugby play­ers is that, on the rugby field, you’re not al­lowed to throw stones. You have to tackle Go­liath.

It’s the kind of prospect a num­ber of school­boy rugby play­ers faced at this year’s Craven Week, where Go­liath was tal­ented Sharks young­ster JJ van der Mescht – who weighs 130 kg. That’s heav­ier than Spring­bok Bakkies Botha ever was, as well as what Eben Etze­beth, Beast Mtawarira, and Lood de Jager cur­rently are.

Van der Mescht is clearly an out­lier at his age. How­ever, it has been a com­mon theme in school­boy rugby over the past few years that a more pro­fes­sional ap­proach to the game at school level, greater ded­i­ca­tion of school­boy rugby play­ers, an in­creased fo­cus on nu­tri­tion and sup­ple­men­ta­tion – as well as an alarm­ing in­crease in per­for­mance-en­hanc­ing sub­stance abuse – are all mak­ing for a school­boy game played by “men”.

We mar­vel at a school­boy front row that is heav­ier than some past Spring­bok front rows. Are we do­ing school­boy rugby and th­ese uniquely big play­ers an in­jus­tice if we just fo­cus on size? Is big­ger re­ally that much bet­ter?

For­mer Spring­bok and now Su­pers­port com­men­ta­tor Brey­ton Paulse doesn’t think so, and be­lieves this size ob­ses­sion at school level is mis­placed. “It’s get­ting a lit­tle out of hand at school level. Rugby is a phys­i­cal sport and let’s be clear, size can be some­what of an ad­van­tage,” he says.

“But the ob­ses­sion with size at school­boy level has re­sulted in boys us­ing all th­ese sup­ple­ments which are not good in the long term. I’d ap­peal to school­boy play­ers to please stay away from all th­ese shakes and things. You have young play­ers spend­ing more time in the gym and less time fo­cus­ing on skills.”

The re­cent poor per­for­mance of the South African schools team in Europe re­in­forces Paulse’s ar­gu­ment that size very quickly be­comes mean­ing­less at in­ter­na­tional level un­less you can back it up with skill. “There were some big boys in that South African Schools team, but the smaller teams beat our boys with ease. We went over with this heavy pack of for­wards and it didn’t make an im­pact. I would rather have picked a more mo­bile pack that keeps the ball in hand more and can be cre­ative.

“I’d go with a boy who can score me three tries and maybe miss one or two tack­les rather than just a huge player who can only give me ruck­ing and maul­ing.”

This year’s Six Na­tions was another prime ex­am­ple of size not be­ing ev­ery­thing in mod­ern rugby. The Welsh brought the heav­i­est team to the com­pe­ti­tion, weigh­ing an av­er­age of 106 kg per player. The French had the biggest pack of for­wards at a col­lec­tive 936 kg. Eng­land had the light­est back­line of all the teams and the fourth heav­i­est pack of for­wards, yet walked away with the hon­ours.

For Paulse, rugby is still heav­ily de­pen­dent on the “lit­tle men” who are the play­mak­ers. “Look at a player like All Black Damian Mcken­zie, who was the spark in that All Black team in the first Test against Aus­tralia this year. And play­ers like Aaron Cru­den and Se­abelo Se­natla – th­ese are not big guys, but they are still the play­mak­ers of world rugby and the rea­son peo­ple love to watch the game. In our Cur­rie Cup, Rosko Spec­man and Sergeal Petersen have been run­ning riot.”

Clearly there is a place for the big boys of school­boy rugby, but the other boys are ca­pa­ble of mak­ing just as big an im­pact in the game.

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