Rugby’s quiet inroads in Soweto

31 January 2005

It is almost a given that a boy who grows up in Soweto has a passion for soccer, spending countless afternoons playing impromptu, passionate matches on the streets or dusty fields of this sprawling Johannesburg township.

But for a handful of pupils at Jabulani Technical High School, their enthusiasm is for a different sport altogether – one seldom equated with black youngsters anywhere in South Africa. We’re talking, of course, about rugby.

This far less popular, formerly “white” sport is steadily making inroads into Soweto’s sporting psyche, with Jabulani Technical High School at the forefront of the development

“Sadly we still have individuals in our communities who perceive rugby as a sport played only by a particular race group”, says the school’s sport co-ordinator, Godfrey Leballo.

But over the years, this mindset has slowly been crumbling, yielding fruitful results for the growth and development of the game in other surrounding townships as well, says Leballo.

Situated next to Koma Road in Jabulani, Technical High has emerged as one of Johannesburg’s chief breeding grounds for black rugby talent.

Rugby was first included as a sporting activity in 1989, as part of the school’s sports awareness campaign to provide pupils with a wide variety of sporting options, says Leballo.

But it was not without some teething problems. “We had huge challenges when we first tried to encourage pupils to be part of the school’s rugby team, because a lot of them believed rugby was not meant for black people.” In addition, many saw it as a painful and barbaric sport.

But with South Africa hosting the 1995 Rugby World Cup, many township youngsters were enticed by the game – and the country’s lifting of the Cup drew even more supporters, Leballo says.

“I believe that when local youngsters saw former president Nelson Mandela wearing the Springbok jersey, and black players such as Chester Williams being selected for the side, they started believing they could play this game.” In the ensuing months, Leballo noticed more and more pupils wanting to join school squads.

At the entrance of the school’s main office is a cabinet of trophies and certificates of its many sporting achievements. Pride of place goes to a framed South African rugby jersey, signed by the Springbok team.

The white long-sleeved jersey was donated to the school in 1999 by Virgin Atlantic Airways – the school’s rugby sponsor from 1998 to 2000.

Virgin Atlantic provided equipment and paid for the school’s team to travel to local and international tournaments. “Through Virgin Atlantic, Jabulani was invited to play against a rugby school in England”, says coach Andrew Nkoana.

The sponsorship ended after 9/11.

Despite having no major financial backers, Jabulani Technical High remains undeterred.

“It’s true our rugby performance has dropped slightly, but our sports committee has set-up a strategy to rectify this problem”, says principal Dumisani Mbense. “The committee is working towards uplifting our school’s rugby performance to where it should be – at the top.”

Jabulani, which caters for pupils from grade 8 to grade 12, remains one of the few township schools in South Africa offering rugby as a sport.

“A lot of our neighbouring schools don’t have rugby in their sporting codes due to a lack of facilities, even rugby fields, and no equipment”, says Leballo. “At least our school is privileged enough to have a grassed rugby field.”

With its abundance of talent, the school also influences local rugby at club level, with the Soweto Rugby Club being the main beneficiary.

A few local players have also gone much further. Former Gauteng Lion McDonald Muzi Masina is a product of Jabulani, while Giant Nkosi impressed at last year’s Craven Week schools tournament.

“I don’t think I would have been a rugby player if I had not attended high school at Jabulani Tech”, says Sivile Ningiza, president of the school’s Learners’ Representative Committee, and scrumhalf.

“I used to believe rugby was only accessible to white people and to local kids that attend school in Model C schools or private colleges”, he adds.

However, while rugby remains the stepchild of local sport, its adherents are determined to change that perception.

A lack of facilities around Soweto and the fact that rugby is not included in the extra-mural activities of many township schools are some reasons why local youngsters are not interested, says Jabulani player Katlego Hato.

“Go around Soweto and check how many soccer fields exist in this area – plenty”, Hato points out. “Then check how many rugby fields exist in the same area – none, maybe less than three.”

“But I love rugby”, Hato says, “because it teaches you discipline.”

He jokingly adds: “I also love pain – that’s why I decided to become a rugby player before I become a professional wrestler!”

Source: City of Johannesburg

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