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Have schools lost the plot with 'win at all costs' attitude

I have been grappling with this ‘issue’ for the past few years – even before the COVID-19 lockdown.


The amount and degree of severe injuries at the school level, particularly head injuries and concussions, are very concerning.

A few weeks ago, an 18-year-old player, Liyabona Teyise, passed away tragically – following a severe head injury during an interschools match in the Eastern Cape.

Apart from this incident, there were also several concussions at festivals across the country.

I understand and appreciate that catastrophic injuries are a part of contact sports such as rugby. However, we must question the motivation behind some of the current practices on school sports fields.

Are we following the guidelines to ensure our children are safe and well looked after?

Do we care more about victories and egos than our young players?


The restrictions brought about because of the COVID-19 pandemic deprived many young players of practicing and playing sports.

The intense desire for schools, coaches and clubs to now showcase what they have and can do is evident.

However, at what cost?

What matters more – the school’s status or young lives?


Gone are the days that the so-called ‘big schools’ have an amateur approach to the game, with sport played purely just for enjoyment and entertainment.

Teams are often professionally driven and set up, with some schools employing training programs that are more intense than those of professional unions.

This includes aspects such as ‘time on feet’ and training intensity.

Often these contact training sessions are without adequate medical support available.

Young players’ lives are at risk every time they step onto a field- whether for training or a match.

It is our ethical responsibility to be asking these questions:
* Is the “win at all costs” motive so significant that we lose perspective?
* Is it more important to be a top rugby school than to look after the players’ health?
* Are commercial values and sponsorships at risk if players do not perform?
* Is there a scientific approach to an introduction to seasons after COVID-19?

I believe that – given the past two years of sports training restrictions due to COVID-19 – a soft launch should be a priority for the game.

A soft launch approach would include gently easing back into contact training and playing (conditioning phase) and having fewer matches in the first season.

Over the past few weeks, there have been several tournaments and reports of certain teams having played three matches in six days and a fortnight later heading into another tournament against top schools.

This involves high tempo and big contact games.

A few key people are involved in the decision-making process regarding the number of games played and whether a player should go back onto the field after a head injury.

These include the school’s coach, medical team, referee, and parents.

However, despite medical advice to the contrary, some coaches still put the players back onto the field.

All the protocols are in place and are supposed to be adhered to. Unfortunately, this has not been the case in some of the matches I have witnessed. It is essential to ask whether there is a monitoring/measuring system to see if these regulations are applied and followed.

The desire to win and be No.1 is a normal part of all competitive sport.

Rugby is no exception, but with players having had fewer training opportunities over the past two years, the question remains, at what cost are we chasing that desire?

As I wrote in a social media post: ‘If it was your child, will you let him play after a serious head knock or injury?’

I am not a Sports Scientist or medical expert, but I approached Dr. Pierre Viviers (A specialist in the management of concussion and head injuries) and Prof Wilbur Kraak (A Rugby Scientist and a qualified rugby coach) at Stellenbosch University for their opinions on this matter.



The current state of head injuries in Schools Rugby

It is well known that the incidence of head injuries in schoolboy rugby is reaching alarming high numbers. Also of note is that concussions are by far the most significant contributor to head injuries amongst these players. However, witnessing the management of players on-field, the behaviour of coaches and parents, or getting history during a post-injury medical examination send alarm bells and warrant further discussion.

Contributing factors leading to this situation includes lack of knowledge in the management of head injuries (including concussion), ignorance in accepting symptoms and signs of concussion, and putting the team performance or outcome before the health and safety of players. Mechanisms of head injuries, especially concussions, and high-risk phases of play are well researched. The role of the tackle, tackler, and a player being tackled is an appropriate example.

Protocols developed by World Rugby and implemented by SARU are in place. SARU goes extensively to promote safety and understanding of concussions amongst coaches, referees, and sideline personnel, through the BokSmart safety program.

In essence, no coach is allowed to coach any rugby team in SA if not registered after completion of the BokSmart program. Therefore, no excuse exists for the ill-management of concussions in school rugby.

It is always interesting to witness behaviour after a concussion was confirmed by a coach or medical personnel. Parents, or some coaches, will do all in their position to find a health professional to clear such a player for participation in the next game.

This confirms my position on lack of knowledge. We are ignorant to accept that a concussion is an injury to the brain.

Its progress towards healing brings a vulnerability to the brain resulting in acute devastating complications or medium and long-term complications involving others, cognition, and mood.

Is the winning or exposure culture so strong that we will risk these outcomes to develop young players? That is the question, risk versus benefit!

I am of opinion that schools lack dedicated head injury programs, including management before and after injury. If not, everyone involved will interpret the management protocols to fit their expected outcomes. Parents and coaches should be educated in the components of these programs and should adhere to them with 100 percent compliance.

Referees and coaches’ mismanaging head injuries (including concussions) should be reported to the SARU medical division.

In conclusion, my recommendation:
1. Get all role players registered through the BokSmart program
2. Educate parents and other role players
3. Develop a tailor-made program that will fit the school in the management of head injuries, and advocate the importance of compliance
4. Do not let the risk be higher than the benefit when ignoring a concussion to shortcut appropriate management

Pierre Vivviers


Have we lost the plot as rugby coaches and schools?

Indeed, we did. We easily forget that schools last had a proper rugby season in 2019. In short, we missed two years of development of kids, and we easily forget that aspect which led to coaches and schools trying to cramp all tactical, technical, mental, and physical development in a short space of time.

This is easy to coach, and you get from point A to Z quicker; thus the technical, mental and physical development is neglected. This increases the risk of injuries, burnout, and a more significant focus on the tactical component.

Let’s move away from the on-field aspects and highlight the unnecessary pressure created off the field by parents.

One more recent incident is the incident between Northwood and Kearnsey College Under-16 match that is currently trending on Twitter.

The following section will highlight a few concerns:
1. According to various researchers, most of the injuries in schoolboy rugby in South Africa are contact-related. The tackle and ruck areas are responsible for the vast majority of these injuries. Without proper technique and skills, development coaches move into the attack and defending structures without instilling the fundamentals. Due to a lack of time available, these fundamentals are not properly coached. Coaches do not spend time teaching the proper technique and expose these players during training while they are fatigued.
2. Keeping to the risk of injury trend, coaches (we should not underestimate the pressure of parents) tend to neglect the proper management of injuries, therefore allowing players to return to play (RTP) quicker without following proper medical advice due to the pressure of winning by keeping the star players on the field. What is the long-term effect on the player? Do we only care about the now and the scoreboard?
3. Due to schools playing multiple competitions and the rugby season starting in February and finishing in October, coaches struggle to plan properly, which affects the players’ preparation to withstand the demands to which they are exposed. Coaches should do proper planning and find a balance between all the components of the game (technical, tactical, mental, and physical). Proper recovery strategies should also be implemented to minimize the risk of injury.
4. Due to the long rugby season, learners are not able to participate in multiple sports at the school level and are leading to early specialization at a young age. Does early specialization lead to sports success at a later stage? The answer under is a resounding No!

In conclusion, I will make the following recommendations:
* The South African Rugby Union (SARU) needs to invest in a proper coach education and monitoring program at schoolboy level.
* Schools should limit the number of competitions and matches they participate in to allow proper recovery and time for effective preparation of players and teams.
* Develop and implement a proper contact development program for all ages (starting at primary school level) that includes contact-ready activities that involve correct and effective techniques.
* At primary school level, have a clear focus on technique and skills development. Why not move away from only looking schoolboard to determine the winner of a match.
* Educate parents and schools about the BokSmart guidelines and proper RTP protocols.

Wilbur Kraak

Back to Eugene Eloff

In writing this article, I intend to add value to the safety of the game we all love and the kids who love playing it.

In coaching in my amateur and professional capacity, my approach has always been to treat every boy as if he were my child. In doing this, decisions regarding injuries, treatment and return to play were easy.

Schools rugby in South Africa is some of the strongest and best organised globally and it is a pleasure to watch.

Let’s coach with love and discipline, but mostly care for every player.

By Eugene Eloff

* This article is dedicated to Liyabona Teyise, who tragically passed away after a severe, on-field head injury.

Other columns by Loffie

Playing politics or maintaining integrity
Hold your horses: This ain’t rugby
Where have all the players & silverware gone?
Sun Art of coaching warfare
The lonely life of a coach
Evolve or become extinct
Loffie Eloff’s lockdown message

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