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Contrasts aplenty between juniors and schoolboys

Written by beet bailey (beet)

Posted in :Original Content, Reader Submissions, Sharks on 17 Jun 2011 at 09:39
Tagged with : , ,

So thanks mainly to an article by dare I say the great Rob Otto of Sharksworld, champion of the cause of Sharks Junior rugby, I get to watch our brand new Sharks under-19 team being put to the test for the first time in 2011.

It actually turns out to be a great Youth Day of rugby against the Pumas because playing a kind of curtain raiser to this “main” match is the Kwazulu-Natal under-18 schoolboy rugby team. Being able to watch these back-to-back matches highlights several differences that exist between the Pumas and ourselves as well as the u18 versus u19 age groups.

The schoolboys run onto the field in front of a decent crowd. Sure, it’s nowhere near the size of what many of these boys are used to playing in front of but given that it’s a midweek, low-key affair without the involvement of any schools’ lower teams, I mark it down as a good turnout.

Evident from the get go is that the Pumas pack is noticeably larger than our boys who probably tip the scales at a modest 760kg in my books. The standout Pumas player of the game is lock Jacques du Plessis. This kid can jol. I tell the Pumas medic that he can hang around this province for the next 5 years and he won’t see a local kid of that size and ability on the schoolboy rugby field. I put it down to genetics, mainly because that’s what I’ve been told is the reason why we’re always smaller than the highveld guys plus I’m too lazy to do my own research on this topic. I also predict to this Pumas medic (apologies if he’s a doctor) that Hans Scriba or Rudolph Straeuli will be running after the lock with a pen and contract just as soon as the final whistle sounds. He points out that the youngster, seemingly like just about every other talented schoolboy these days, has already signed with the Bulls. We agree that it’s not the best decision ever made for very different reasons, me because it’s the &%@# Bulls and he more practically notes that if the kid continues to show this kind of impressive form at Craven Week, better contract offers would have been put on the table. Anyway I’m sidetracking.

It’s a tough game. We run out deserved winners by 40-26. Our guys are better on the day but have to work their butts off to get the win. The Pumas are hindered by their bus trip the day before but we’ll get to that later. When the final whistle is blown, there’s no sign of Hans or Rudolf but I feel satisfied knowing that the Pumas don’t have a player of the calibre of brawny Westville centre Tyler Fisher, who has a good game, scores 2 power tries and is all set to join the Sharks in 2012.

The whistle does however double as the signal to about nine-tenths of the crowd to evacuate the ground as quickly as possible. The mass exodus creates the impression that that’s it for the day, time to shut shop and head home asap. Fortunately I caught a glimpse of the u19s warming up earlier on or I too would have been brainwashed into heading for the exit, cussing Rob Dylan’s name for getting the u19 kickoff time wrong. What’s left behind is just a handful of die-hard u19 rugby lovers. Although the crowd size is anticipated, it was nevertheless still a sad sight to witness and serves as a good indication of just how much hard work lays ahead for anyone wanting bridge the gap between the tens of thousands that follow schools rugby in the province and the Kombi load that think u19 rugby is worth the 90 or so minutes of their spare time.

Five or so minutes later the Pumas u19s run onto Dixons field. By this time, I’m chatting to a parent of one of the Pumas u19 starters. The gentleman looks like one of these typically big built made for rugby type farmers and without asking, it doesn’t take any stretch of the imagination to figure out what position his kid plays in. Anyway it turns out that the father has zero experience when it comes to u19 rugby and pretty much expects part 2 of what he’s just witnessed in the u18s: big Pumas vs smaller Sharks. This Pumas parent obviously gets a good fright when big Siseko Jafta leads our team onto the field and even passes a worried sounding comment about the size of our guys. I provide him with Junior Rugby 101, a crash course placing great emphasis on the key word: “imports”. I stand to be corrected but by my calculations, two-thirds of our u19 run-on team were not schooled in KZN. And yes the gentleman is right. Our boys are significantly bigger than the Pumas.

From the information I gathered, the Pumas do not have an academy. Their long bus trip down to Durban starts on Wednesday morning and involved making stop offs at their major centres, presumably Middelburg, Nelspuit and Ermelo to pick up players. Along the way they even met with an accident due to mechanical failure. Fortunately it was a bad road, so the driver was going very slowly and no one was injured. They eventually arrived in Durban at 10pm. First kickoff is early the next morning. The long story short is the Pumas senior team have often impressed us during the Currie Cup and produced a couple of giant-killings over the years. They are however a financially constrained rugby union, meaning many of the professional facilities and luxuries that the Sharks junior have access to, are beyond the budgetary means of the Witbank based union to offer their juniors. Whereas their schools team is quite capable of reversing the 40-26 result in a home fixture, it’s highly unlikely that their u19 team could do much to affect the 47-0 outcome of a game against the Sharks irrespective of the venue. Our u19 guys barely got out of first gear and still managed to dominate proceedings.

The Sharks u19 pack is on average a fair bit taller and at least 10kg per man heavier than our u18 team. Apart from this size issue, there are clear step-ups in the areas of speed, skills and intensity. You’ll probably say: ‘Duh! That’s expected!” Mind you the performance gap suggests more than a year’s difference in age. However it’s understandable. In this one year, kids go from being part-time amateur rugga players to full-time professionals. Add to this the contraction of the system as whole. About 15 Craven Week teams + 15 Academy Teams + all those talented players who missed out on representative team selection (Marcell Coetzee being the latest good example), now get squeezed into in 1 of 6 top junior rugby teams around SA. It’s cream of the crop stuff from u19 onwards.

The final contrast came to me after the u19 game. I get a chance to have a word with Barend Steyn, the likeable KZN Schools coach. Barend is in a hurry to get back to Kearsney where he is a full-time teacher and has some assignments to mark. Being the college’s Director of Rugby is his secondary responsibility. The KZN schools rugby rules stipulate that the Craven Week coach has to be a first team coach, so that’s why Barend has been appointed in this third role. There’s a fair bit of multitasking involved. On the other hand, u19 head coach, Ryan Strudwick is a full-time professional coach who gets to eat, sleep and breathe rugby, not that this in anyway reduce the pressure on Ryan to deliver. Whereas the huge provincial expectations placed on Barend will be condensed into one week of Craven Week glory, Ryan’s set target is no doubt to turn the available contracted talent into a junior Currie Cup winning team in four months time. There’s also the issue of developing players for the senior team that he has to keep in mind.


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