Is Schoolboy Rugby Still for Boys?
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.