Solid platform needed to develop grassroots rugby

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Ithembelihle High School rugby coach Theo Pieterse runs through a few drills with some of his young players Mlumelo Tola, 18, Sikelela Mcwapelli 16, Avelile Sodladla 14 and Asanele Jack, 18 . Image: Eugene Coetzee

Springbok euphoria swept across SA with thousands of South Africans expressing their joy through songs, dances and selfie moments with the team.

Millions more were glued to their TVs for days as the Springbok bus moved through the streets of Pretoria, Johannesburg, Durban, East London, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town.

Among the throngs of supporters and well-wishers were young rugby players from township schools who travelled huge distances to see their heroes such as Siya Kolisi, Faf de Klerk, Makazole Mapimpi, Duane Vermeulen, Beast Mtawarira, Cheslyn Kolbe, Lukhanyo Am and other Bok stars.

As the bus passed my home in Duna Steet, Kwazakhele, I remembered that I was once that starry-eyed young rugby player, whose heroes were Temba Ludwaba, Morgan Cushe, Toto Tsotsobe, Wilfred Khovu, Mlungisi Ndzala, Luck Mange, Allaistair Allister Coetzee, Norman Xhoxho, Bruno Mbula, Desmond Booysen and many others.

I played my rugby at Mzontsundu Secondary School, Ithembelihle High and Newell High.

What we lacked in equipment and facilities, we compensated for with passion, a hunger for success and a strong work ethic.

In the same way a younger Siya Kolisi is photographed getting an autograph from Schalk Burger, these young township rugby players will never forget the moment Siya lifted the Web Ellis Cup in Tokyo or the victory tour by the Boks through their streets.

This inspirational Bok victory will fuel an unprecedented growth in the game across the country among from children of all races.

Although there will be overall growth in rugby, our past, socioeconomic environment and demographics mean that growth of the sport in township and village schools will make the biggest change in rugby in SA for decades to come.

The critical question is how we harness the World Cup victory and use it to develop grassroots rugby.

In the words of Rassie Erasmus, “We have to focus on making sure that everybody gets equal chances of playing, everybody gets good nutrition and everybody gets a fair chance and there are so many things that we have to fix – we can’t just focus on the Springboks.”

It is therefore important that we build on this success, harness the enthusiasm we see among the youth for rugby and tap into the amazing goodwill that is sweeping the country. One of the most impactful contributions we can make is to invest in township and village school rugby so that we can produce the next Siya Kolisi, Lukhanyo Am, or a Makazole Mapimpi.

 Here are some suggestions I would make to keep the Springbok flame alive for a long time to come: 

* Township schools that do not offer rugby need to create a conducive atmosphere for rugby to be played at their schools. There are many former players that can be roped in to assist with the establishment of rugby structures. Linking such schools with local teams will also promote a rugby culture in such schools. 

* Those township schools that offer rugby must anticipate a significant growth in interest from students who may now want to play. Parents in those schools need to encourage their children in the pursuit of their sport — they need to understand the nature of the sport and the level of enjoyment that players get from it.

*We must prioritize the development of rugby coaches at school level. In most schools, this role is played by teachers and ex-teachers – they need proper skills to do this for the development of the sport and the welfare of the children. Sponsors can play a key role in the development of such skilled rugby coaches.

* Parents and pupils at suburban schools can play a huge role in the development of township rugby. Sometimes buried in the garage, among boxes and things in the attic are many rugby balls, rugby boots, and other rugby materials that will be invaluable to township rugby pupils. We need a huge positive campaign to donate equipment to reputable organisations that will help distribute it to rugby players at township schools on a transparent and equitable basis. During my playing days at school and later in local clubs, sharing soccer and rugby boots was the norm, imagine if 2020 starts with most players having ruby equipment to start the rugby season.

* One of the missing elements during my time at school were relevant lessons about the value of physical education and balanced nutrition for rugby players. The socio-economic conditions under which many township rugby players grow make it absolutely necessary for such lessons to be conducted and for players to find ways to be in good physical condition and to follow appropriate diets whilst cognisant of their social conditions. These valuable lessons will also deal with the dangers of performance enhancing drugs and the impact these can have on the health and rugby future of these players. 

*Many township and village rugby players come from child headed homes or homes where they are brought up by their grandparents of relatives. There is a daily battle to survive some of the challenges of township life as a young person; to do well at school, to define yourself and to do well in rugby. Schools, with the support of various organizations, must invest in life skills for these young players to give them a realistic chance of success. 

* Private and Model C schools must also create opportunities for some of the best rugby players from township and village schools through bursaries and scholarships. This is the path followed by Siya Kolisi to study at Grey PE from a township school.

* Township school players need regular games in order to get better and to compete at the right levels. Rugby administrators need to be very creative in giving these players regular game time.

* We must greatly improve the administration of the game at school, club and provincial levels. This means that we must have selfless, dedicated, passionate administrators who will be able to build on the current momentum and goodwill. There is great scope for various sponsors, previous administrators and other reputable institutions to help such administrators and other officials such as referees, linesmen etc to get the necessary skills to succeed in modern rugby.

There is room to utilize some of the former players to help guide township and village school rugby, I have benefited from the wise counsel and advice of people like Lucky Mange and Makhaya Jack about rugby development. We can use their experience and expertise more broadly. 

The future of township and village school rugby is very bright. Six years ago I started a schools rugby tournament to develop and promote rugby in the schools around Port Elizabeth townships. The Mzwandile Mali Rugby tournament offers great prizes to schools and players in order to encourage their participation. We have plans to broaden the tournament to include schools in Grahamstown, Fort Beaufort and Alice in 2020. I am very excited by a partnership with Standard Bank, The Herald, Isuzu Super Kings to take this tournament to the next level in 2020.

I sincerely hope that we can use this historic moment to unearth more Springboks from our rural and urban schools

I leave the last word to the man of the moment, Siya Kolisi, and his message to the youth of South Africa. “Anything can be overcome with opportunity,’‘ We must offer opportunities to township and village school rugby players in order to grow this game we love so much. This will bring back that famous Nelson Mandela smile. 

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