Coping with the lost season

The Coronavirus pandemic has forced the cancellation of the highly important national rugby youth weeks, as well as entire school sport seasons, leading to significant challenges for principals.

For thousands of children across the country, their sports seasons have been wiped out by coronavirus. For a small portion it means the death of a lifelong dream of playing first-team rugby, and for an even smaller group, representing their province at Craven Week – the elite provincial under-18 competition that has produced a stream of future stars.

The emotional impact of that situation could have massive ramifications. And it’s not only in rugby where school pupils are suffering – with entire sport seasons cancelled, and school years put on hold, those that viewed matric as the coronation of their school lives have had the rug pulled from under them.

“I teach an online maths lit class to our matrics, and one of the boys who is in the first team rugby, just wasn’t engaging,” Dale College headmaster Garth Shaw told Daily Maverick. “Suddenly he lashed out at me and said: ‘sir, you’re pushing us too hard, giving us too much work and going too fast.’

“So, I met him privately on another chat and told him that he hadn’t been engaging for a week, he hadn’t responded to messages, which is why he was struggling to keep up. I was concerned, and asked if it was a lack of data or something else. What I picked up from our conversation was a real negativity and anger that he has lost his rugby season. His anger was being projected on to me as his teacher.

“Since that conversation, there has been a positive turnaround in his attitude and work, which is so important. I’ve taken advice from the school counsellor so we can effectively manage how kids are feeling at this time and how the pandemic is affecting them, especially when it comes to sport.”

“We are aware as staff of the psychological impact of this Covid-19 lockdown on the boys but also on the teachers. One teacher said to me that we have to keep encouraging the teachers; we are passionate about our jobs because it’s a calling. We have to guard against feeling worthless. If we start feeling like that, then how will the kids feel? If a kid’s identity is entwined with coming to school, or being a first-team rugby player and he’s not getting that, what is it doing to his psychological and emotional state?”

It’s just one of dozens of similar stories playing out around the country’s schools to a greater or lesser degree, as the National State of Disaster and the Covid-19-enforced lockdown continues to have unforeseen consequences.

Western Province celebrate winning the 2018 Craven Week during the 2018 Craven Week Final Rugby match between Western Province and the Sharks at Paarl Boys High, Paarl on 14 July 2018 (Photo: Chris Ricco/BackpagePix)

Although schoolboy rugby is a massive loser in the current lockdown, it could be substituted by hockey, football or any other sport. Sport is a vital component of school and without it, the already surreal and traumatic experience school pupils are going through, has been amplified.

“Education is so much more than the classroom,” Jeppe Boys High headmaster Dale Jackson told Daily Maverick. “Education is also about sport. Tours, the discipline of training and how to react in pressure situations found in sport are vital to a rounded education.

“In 2020 scholars are missing out on a big chunk of their education. There is a lot of research that shows that being active in sport helps teenagers improve their academic results. It’s not like students are suddenly going to study for an extra four hours a day because there is no sport.

“I speak to other headmasters and our worry is that academics will suffer in the absence of sport. If you tell a 17-year-old that there is no rugby for the rest of the year, that doesn’t motivate him or focus his mind on academics. It’s the opposite – it demotivates and defocuses him.

“It’s not like these kids are going to say, ‘hey, there’s six hours in the day I can use for studying’ – that’s just not going to happen. They need that time to exercise and get rid of some energy.”

Shaw is in agreement: “You have to remember that the kids haven’t only lost the winter sports season, but the entire season. One of our top athletics prospects, Saxole Manase, who was in the running for a medal in the 100m and 200m at the national championships, had that taken away from him.

“That has been a huge setback for him. Saxole had worked for his chance for over a year after coming sixth at the 2019 national championships. He sacrificed so much, and in his case, his dream was pulled from under him, and quickly.

“In a matter of days, it went from a fairly ‘normal’ situation to the national championships being postponed and then later cancelled.

“The scholars have had their derby and reunion weekends taken away. The reunion weekend against Queens College, and their final year of sport at school is such a big deal. The privilege of playing in the first team is huge and to lose that is massive. It’s lost forever.

“Affies (Afrikaans Hoerskool in Pretoria) is 100 years old this year and has special celebrations planned. Their headmaster told me that for the staff the situation is quite easily managed, but for the boys, and especially the matrics, it has been devastating.”

Cost-cutting adds to the lockdown woes

SA Rugby, in an effort to shave R1.2-billion off the industry’s collective budget in 2020 as a result of the global lockdown, recently cancelled all its youth weeks, including the flagship Under-18 Craven Week. For aspiring rugby players that has added to the stress for youngsters with professional aspirations.

For most schoolboy rugby players, Craven Week is not the goal, but rather playing for their school first team is the target. Memories and bonds created in that environment tend to last a lifetime. For thousands of pupils around the country that has been taken away from them.

The numerous Easter Schools rugby festivals played across the country, have evolved into a massive marketing event for schools as well as auditions for aspiring players. Schoolboys who perform well at these festivals are tagged by agents, scouts and coaches and either approached or monitored closely. In 2020, all Easter Schools’ festivals were cancelled, pulling another rug out from under players with higher rugby ambitions.

For some, Craven Week is a showcase to earn a university scholarship or a provincial rugby playing contract. Scouts from across the world attend the week-long tournament. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for aspiring professional players is gone in 2020. While some talented players are already on SA Rugby’s radar, a player that hasn’t been signed or earmarked, has the chance to come through the pack during Craven Week. It can literally be a life-changing week.

In 2019, Limpopo Blue Bulls flank Renzo du Plessis, from the unfashionable Ben Vorster High, had three storming games at Craven Week, which included a solo try from inside his own in-goal area against Griquas. From nowhere, he earned selection to the SA Schools A team, which in turn has opened numerous doors.

Juan Mostert of Western Province celebrates scoring a try with teammates during the 2018 Craven Week Final Rugby match between Western Province and the Sharks at Paarl Boys High, Paarl on 14 July 2018 (Photo: Chris Ricco/BackpagePix)

Janse van der Ryst is headmaster at Queens College in Queenstown. Like his colleagues across the country, the priority has been to find ways to keep the wheels of education turning under trying circumstances. But education, as Jackson pointed out, is so much more than just academic excellence.

“We are very involved with boys’ lives even under lockdown – from an academic and pastoral perspective and we try to replicate as best we can, what they would have experienced at school,” Van der Ryst told Daily Maverick. “In a way all is not lost, and in a way it is a valuable experience.

“What worries me is that as a school, or in terms of sport what SA Rugby have done, is that we are very good at some things because of tradition but we are not very good at adapting and thinking creatively. Maybe it’s because our foundations are strong and most of the things we do, work. But this pandemic is asking questions of us we never anticipated and we are having to adapt.

“Hopefully SA Rugby will use this as a chance to think creatively and come up with a solution to give boys with higher rugby ambitions a chance to show what they can do. I don’t believe that is too much to ask.”

Jackson has been talking to other headmasters in Johannesburg about the possibility of playing some games when the lockdown levels allow. It could be a vital boost for pupils to at least have a taste of playing first team for their school in their final year.

“If the regulations allow for a short sport season later in the year – even if it’s four weeks, we are going to do everything in our power to make it happen,” Jackson says. “Obviously, that would only be under whatever strict regulations are decided upon by the national government.

“But with the provincial and school seasons in sports gone, some kids who have serious ambitions about being recruited to universities, or earning bursaries, have been diminished, which raises other future issues.”

EPD programme still on track

Despite the cancellation of its youth weeks, SA Rugby is still monitoring the form of dozens of 16-18-year-olds identified through its Elite Player Development (EPD) programme. It’s something for those players already on the professional rugby radar, to keep blipping on SA Rugby’s screen.

“The Covid-19 pandemic may be keeping the players off the field temporarily, but it has not stopped us from putting in the groundwork to ensure that they continue to grow and develop into the best possible players in future,” said SA Rugby High Performance Manager Louis Koen.

The SA Schools and SA Schools A coaching staff, Lance Sendin, Cobus van Dyk, Wessel du Plessis and Katleho Lynch, have been proactive in their engagement with a group of 90 Under-18 and Under-19 players, while there has also been regular contact with a handful of Under-16 provincial coaches and talent scouts, who have been tasked with overseeing the implementation of the coaching and training programmes supplied to their players.

In addition to this, the players in the Under-18 to Under-20 structures have been monitored daily through a player wellness system, which documents their training achievements and any injuries among other factors directly related to their training.

“The EPD programme is the cornerstone of our development structures in South African rugby, so it is essential that we continue to work with the players and engage with them to assist in their development,” Koen said.

“Several Springboks, Springbok Sevens and Junior Springbok players have come through these structures, which illustrates the significance of the programme, and we are delighted to see how eager and dedicated the players have been both in terms of their training and engagement with the coaches to improve their skills.”

It’s an admirable and necessary initiative by SA Rugby in “normal” times, and even more so, in the Covid-19 era. But it still only benefits a few. The pandemic has denied players, who had the 2020 season to force their way into the system through their prowess on the field, their chance.

It’s these pupils that will be hurt the most.

“I have total confidence that when schools are allowed back we will have no problems on the academic side because of the work we have been doing,” Jackson says. “There will be some catching up to do, but we are prepared for that and those that need remedial help will receive it. My concern is that the big loss for these kids is the hidden curriculum – what happens outside the classroom.”

Mitigating the massive disappointment that lies ahead for many pupils who have been affected by the lost season, and ensuring that it is contained, would perhaps be the best outcome in this difficult situation.

“What I am aware of, and what I try and convey to the kids, is to not let this disappointment about losing their sporting year spill over into the rest of their thinking,” Shaw says.

“We must take what we can from the year – we can still get good matric marks and we mustn’t let the disappointment of losing sport derail everything.” DM

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