NORTHERN SUBURBS NIGHTMARE
All over the place ! Boishaai right wing Urgene Johannes gets upended by a determined
Boland Landbou defender in their recent match at the Farm. (photo: Carel Nel)
The future of rugby in the Western Province Premier B schools division is looking gloomier by the day as the area faces renewed threats from two entirely different physical directions – and sources.
This group of schools has, since its inception, been rightly regarded as the home of all those schools most likely to offer a credible challenge to the centuries-old traditional institutions that populate the sport’s highest tier in the province, and, in several cases, the country.
However, for some time now schools such as Bellville, DF Malan and Monument Park have been experiencing the understandable frustration of seeing the few above-average players they do manage to cultivate being spirited away by the local out-of-town giants or even the more determined of the Northvaal wannabes.
This is not idle speculation, but hard fact.
Spare a thought, for example, for De Kuilen, who might have expected the highly-acclaimed Liebenberg brothers, recent bastions of HTS Drostdy and the South African Under 20 teams, to have enrolled there after completing their primary school education in Kuils River.
In similar vein, another Premier B school, Strand, is used to seeing its better prospects opt for the scenic drive to Stellenbosch and Paul Roos.
While obviously a large number of the learners attend the Winelands schools for a variety of reasons quite unrelated to rugby, the buses leaving the northern suburbs from as far south as Panorama for the hour or so trips to (and from) the Paarl and Stellenbosch institutions every weekday serve as a stark reminder of the tendency.
But things are now looking considerably bleaker.
The threats come in the form of the big-league aspirations of Stellenberg, on the one hand, and the increasing Anglicization of the formerly northern suburbs nearest to the city.
The rise and rise of Stellenberg
“Threats” may be an emotive word, but it does come close to describing the well-thought-out and equally determined drive by the Jade Brigade to harness its excellent facilities and forward-thinking coaching staff to bolster their sports teams, most particularly the rugby ones, in order to create a local super-power capable of providing realistic opposition to the Big Eight.
Like them or loathe them, they have shown enormous courage in taking on one of the most unenviable fixture lists in the country this season.
No-one expected them to win many of the clashes against the established sides on their 2016 dance card, but what cannot fail to have struck even their most vocal detractors is the sanguine, uncomplaining way in which they have stuck to their seemingly impossible task.
Realizing that achieving their goal is not a short-term process, the school has understandably upped its recruiting drive in order to ensure a sustained flow of quality players.
Tired of enrolling and moulding good players only to have the wolves from the four out-of-town schools making them offers that they were never going to be able to match, they have raked the northern suburbs primary schools with a very fine-toothed comb to populate their machine.
This itself has had a three-prong effect.
Firstly, the northern suburbs schools are now finding their intake of rugby-playing Grade 8s turning from an already unhealthily sporadic dribble to little more than the occasional drip, especially now that Stellenberg’s entry into the fray caters particularly to youngsters who don’t fancy the long daily commutes by bus or life in a boarding school.
A headmaster from the area confided in me recently that he feared for his first XVs in the near future as it seemed that rugby players were just no longer interested in enrolling at his school, which I must add has an enviable record in many fields, not least its academic achievements.
Even current Premier B pace-setters Brackenfell, the largest secondary school in the province, have found their intake of rugby players in the junior age-groups has been disturbingly small over the last two years.
Secondly, the country giants have been forced to become increasingly aggressive in their recruitment campaigns, which is good news for any youngster with a glimmer of talent, but represents another body blow for despairing local coaches.
As if to signal the seriousness with which they viewed the competition for young talent, Paarl Gym went so far as openly appointing a talent scout at the end of last year.
Thirdly, some schools have been forced to turn their attention elsewhere in order to maintain the supply chain.
For example, Durbanville, the closest neighbours to and therefore the institution most affected by Stellenberg’s efforts, has reportedly turned its focus on the Malmesbury district, a move facilitated by the fact that, of all the Premier B schools, it alone offers hostel accommodation.
Anglicization of Goodwood and Parow
Not that long ago JG Meiring and President, situated at the southern and northern boundaries of Goodwood, were fairly strong rugby-playing schools.
Both have, over the last decade or so, been forced to resort to offering dual-medium education in order to cater to their demographic group and, let’s face it, simply to survive as the area gradually attracts more and more English-speaking families.
Be it by accident or simply coincidence, the quality of their rugby has declined dramatically.
And now, in 2017, Tygerberg, the next high school in terms of northerly direction, will be taking in around 90 Grade 8 learners.
Fortunately, rather than waiting for the inevitable as seems to have been the case with the two schools mentioned above, the Tygers appear to have done their homework in a concerted effort to buck the unwritten trend: the perception that dual medium schools have too many irons in the fire to devote to rugby the amount of attention it requires.
They certainly have their work cut out for them. For some years now talented English-speaking rugby players have made their way to the southern suburbs giants, especially Rondebosch.
Will Tygerberg be able to convince these boys’ parents to let their youngsters be schooled in the area or will the lure of the traditional boys-only pillars of the local educational community remain irresistible ?
And so the northern suburbs increasingly find themselves between a rock and a hard place.
What is the future of the WP Premier B group ?
If this tier is to remain intact and serve any purpose, changes are going to have to be made.
The briefest glance at the WP Premier B table (albeit unofficial) in the Logs section reveals that it no longer retains any sense of identity.
Almost in a partial acknowledgement of defeat, schools such as Monument Park, DF Malan and HTS Bellville are playing more and more games against third league opposition while Stellenberg, Brackenfell and Tygerberg look beyond their peer-group in the opposite direction, lining up Premier A and leading Boland opposition to fill their schedules.
This league exists in name alone and has done for several years now.
What can be done ?
Firstly, it no longer serves any purpose for Stellenberg to remain in the B league.
They have more than proved their willingness to move up to the top bracket. Fair enough, their strength still has to pass the acid test, but take note, before you condemn their aspirations, that they haven’t played any of the big southern suburbs schools this season.
While this would result in a nine-team Premier A division, the time is indeed ripe for the readmission of HTS Drostdy to this group.
With the days of willy-nilly player-snatching and other alleged shortcoming clearly consigned to the distant past, the Donkeys have devoted themselves to building from the bottom up with truly remarkable results.
At least ten of this year’s 1st XV will represent the Donkeys again in 2017, their Under 16s constitute more than half of the Boland Grant Khomo squad and their junior age-group sides are well above average. Plus, they can field a very healthy number of teams.
Yes, we all know that Boland, the Donkeys’ home union, have broken their close links to Western Province, opting instead for an alliance with the Bulls, but now is the time for pragmatism to triumph over petty points-scoring.
Secondly, the composition of the Premier B league must change to incorporate those schools who show a long-term commitment to self-improvement – like present strugglers HTS Bellville, who have at least shown some initiative by touring the South Western Cape both last year and right now – irrespective of their current results.
Include up-and-coming teams like Parel Vallei, Bellville South, Fairmont, Parow and Kasselsvlei, and insist they play against each other on a regular basis so that the second tier becomes a distinct entity, worthy of its position as the echelon directly below the top stratum, rather than a slapdash conglomeration of also-rans.
Whatever solutions one might offer, one stark fact remains incontrovertible: primary school learners remain fair game for recruitment. Nothing stands in the way of any child moving to the secondary school of his choice, provided that he/she can be accommodated.
Everyone involved knows this and it has on occasion already resulted in parents offering their progeny to the institution that offers them the best deal.
The sooner people stop obsessing about that issue, the quicker we can move on, hopefully along something like the lines suggested above.