The new measure of success

Tue, 08 Jan 2013 13:59
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The recent release of the 2012 Matric results has come and gone in a flurry of optimistic newspaper analyses, counterbalanced by pessimism concerning the value of the qualification.

The recent release of the 2012 Matric results has come and gone in a flurry of optimistic newspaper analyses, counterbalanced by pessimism concerning the value of the qualification and the future prospects of even those who have passed.

There was a time not so long ago when a school lived or died according to the success of its Matric class. The higher your pass-rate, the greater your prestige. After all, this is why the youth go to school: to gain the knowledge needed to prepare them for life thereafter.

The situation is very different now, at least for boys, for two reasons. The academic value of the Matric certificate has sadly become ever more devalued at virtually the same time as the sudden advent of professionalism into the highest profile male sports, a factor that girls-only schools have been spared.

And the bandwagon doesn’t only have room for the superstar elite. Rugby and, to a much lesser extent, cricket tantalisingly offer talented youngsters what appear to be enormously lucrative futures.

But here’s the rub: whereas six or so distinctions can ensure access to an academic path to just about anyone, no matter how you look at it there is a very limited number of places on offer to sportsmen.

Mix our national mania for sport, fanatical parental support, passionate old boy involvement and the exponential widening of the boundaries of professionalism in rugby where even club players can expect remuneration. The result is massive competition from an ever-earlier age for a place at the table.

It’s hardly surprising that schools are increasingly being evaluated both by prospective parents and the man in the street with regard to the fine point where school and big-time sport meet: the 1st XV.

Enter the provincial and other scouts and agents, eager to snap up the best talent as soon as possible in a market demanding instant achievers – the career of the professional sportsman is, after all, of limited duration – and the pressure reaches breaking point. It’s all about NOW.

It wasn’t really that long ago that no-one paid much attention to the ages of players in schools’ sports teams. Rugby365’s Paul Dobson recalls from his time in Durban in the early 1960s how one young man, who had left school to join the merchant navy, returned at 23 to complete his education and played for the school’s 1st XV. Hardly an eyebrow was raised: it was just a pastime.

Now everyone needs to have a good 1st XV for a whole basketful of reasons. The question is how does one go about it? The best ways, those that should yield the desired results over a sustained period, are regrettably open only to very few schools.

Let’s take the Western Province schools as an example.

The state-run English schools (Rondebosch, SACS and Wynberg) largely have to make do with whoever comes to them, although they may offer a limited number of bursaries to snare talent and a degree of past-pupil interest.

Private school Bishops, the highest-ranked local English performers over the years, use a coaching blueprint to ensure a constant flow of quality players. Although it experienced a hideous glitch in 2012, history has shown it is very unlikely to crash to quite the same extent soon.

Boland Landbou are ironically in both a very happy position (just about all their scholars play rugby, not surprisingly since that is the only winter team-sport they offer!) and one that makes them unpopular (having no feeder school, they naturally upset some area-specific schools in the northern suburbs when they recruit pupils).

Understandably the triumvirate of Paul Roos, Paarl Boys’ High and Paarl Gym have made it a priority that their 1st XVs have, over the years, maintained such a high degree of success that they will inevitably attract the cream of the primary school leavers. Hordes of them. After all, they are competing directly against each other in the Afrikaans pupil market, which is both bigger and, arguably, considerably more intense, than its English counterpart.
Each has equal access to personnel so providing top academic staff and sports coaches becomes a priority. A top training environment, on the other hand, costs a lot of money and the education department doesn’t dole out gyms and the like on a regular basis.

Thus the international-class facilities that Paul Roos proudly opened last year have helped establish a standard that, to the neutral observer, gives them an edge, one which is only enhanced by the academic options which come from their intimate historical connection to Stellenbosch University.
But to think that that is the end of it would be at best ignorant. Not only is rugby a matter of enormous pride in the Afrikaans community, but so is one’s ties to one’s old school. Several times in recent years stories have surfaced about the old boys of this or that school clubbing together to provide seven-figure sums to “buy an Under 14 team”.

It is encouraging to note that the utilization of youngsters who turn 18 or 19 but have completed matric, which was briefly the practice at one northern suburbs school, albeit in moderation, was fairly hastily phased out.

The best known of these players was the late Dane Johnson, an outstanding Varsity Cup wing for UCT and Pukke, to whom commentators irritatingly referred to as “having matriculated at ….” when he in fact finished his official school education at humble Bosmansdam. I know, I taught his two elder brothers Delme and Urle.

This case is not entirely isolated. One day a young coloured learner approached Johan Batt, the headmaster of Labori, with whom I happened to be watching his school play one of the major Boland Paarl schools. The pupil told his principal that the visitors’ star kicker was no longer at school. Being the thorough type, Mr Batt made a point of later phoning his counterpart at that school to ask him whether the youth was actually on his roll. After a spot of humming and an equal amount of hawing, he was informed that the lad wasn’t registered, but that “the school is trying to get this done”. In late May? Yeah, pull the other one!

To complete the circle let us return to the newspapers. An excess of free time has lead me over the years to study the matric results to see which rugby players have passed their final examinations. It is with increasing concern that I note how few rugby players from one prominent Boland school ever pass. Either mental incompetence is a requirement for admission or they have a big storeroom full of wool that they think they can pull over everyone’s eyes.

Regrettably it has become customary to refer to players such as that of Johnson and the above as “post Matrics”. This sarcastic – and, frankly, insulting – term does a huge injustice to the perfectly legitimate course of that name that has been running at Bishops for longer than a century and is, at least currently, very definitely not aimed at offering wannabe sport stars another year of protection from the world beyond its impressive gates.
It is aimed at matric learners, more often than not younger ones, who wish to spend a year further defining their goals in life and exploring the various possibilities. Of late the course has attracted many learners from outside the school, none of whom play rugby (a fair percentage of the intake is young ladies). So important is it that the class has its own dedicated member of staff.

The moral of this whole article? Times are such that people will go to extraordinary lengths to get noticed. Some will even misguidedly place their trust in agents with questionable credentials and even less competence.

Consider yourselves warned!

By Tony Stoops