No winners in national schools rugby suspension

While made with the best intentions, the decision to implement a countrywide suspension on all contact sports – including rugby – at schools could have an adverse affect, writes DYLAN JACK.

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In a media release issued by the Department of Basic Education, it was confirmed that all contact sports, including rugby, would be suspended in the country.

According to the release, the Outbreak Response Team determined that the risk of transmission was high when engaged in close contact sports, especially with people who do not live together.

This comes after a rise in Covid-19 outbreaks among schools in Gauteng, which according to the release, ‘related to school sports activities’, with a number of schoolboys rugby games called off in the region over the past couple of weeks.

Unsurprisingly, the reaction to the news has been a mixture of anger, frustration and sadness. Pupils have already taken the blow of having to go a year without sport in 2020, only to see the 2021 season halted after just a handful of games.

Frankly, the decision, while obviously taken with the best intention of stopping a third wave of infections, makes little sense in the context of South Africa’s current Covid-19 restrictions.

Consider that since the country was lowered to a level-one lockdown, people have been flocking to bars, clubs and potential ‘super-spreader’ events such as parties and braais.

Restaurants and shopping malls are also packed every day, with thousands flooding in and out, often bumping into each other and not maintaining anything near a physical distance.

While there are regulations in place at these venues, we all know that as soon as the alcohol goes in, the masks come off and whatever social distancing there was at the beginning of the evening, becomes minimal as the night goes on.

In this context, how is it fair to take extra-curricular activities away from pupils? Whatever happened to a region-specific approach? That would ensure that at least some pupils would be able to continue playing sports, while still containing the spread in the red zones.

Added to this, schools are very well controlled as far as Covid-prevention measures go. There is daily screening of pupils and staff and constant santisation of classrooms and facilities. They have even gone the extra step of calling off sports fixtures with the safety of the children in mind.

Now, to be fair to those in the department of education, they are faced with a difficult decision with schools across Gauteng having to send their kids home due to a rise in positive cases. It’s not an easy place to be in such an unprecedented time. But one has to ask whether a countrywide application was needed.

A study on potential Covid-19 transmission among rugby league players – published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine – determined that ‘despite a high number of tackle involvements and close-proximity interactions between SARS-CoV-2 positive players and players on the same and opposition teams during a rugby league match … transmission is limited during these types of team sport activities played outdoors.’

That study did have its limitations, such as a small data size of 136 male elite rugby-league players – eight of whom were positive – but the point remains that school sports is no more dangerous that interacting in the classroom.  If kids are contracting the virus, it’s more likely to be outside of school activities.

Pupils have already sacrificed so much over the past year. They went what felt like an age without sport and when it did resume, they went without having their parents (and peers) on the sidelines to cheer them on or be there when they got injured, as no spectators were allowed at matches.

The benefit of school sports – and schoolboys rugby in particular – goes beyond just allowing a kid an opportunity to earn a professional contract and a chance at a better life. The vast majority of schoolboys don’t earn a contract straight out of school anyway.

Having an extra-curricular activity is part of the holistic daily life of a healthy teenager. It allows the pupil an escape, an opportunity at interaction with his/her peers beyond the confines of the classroom. So many kids come out of their shells and find their confidence out on the sportsfield.

It is vital to their mental wellbeing.

There are no winners in this decision. Children suffer mentally and the young coaches who pour their passion into getting these kids to reach their potential may find themselves without a job and a living.

On the face of it, this is a decision made out of panic, especially in it’s countrywide application. Needless to say, this is a call that urgently needs to be reconsidered.

Photo: Ashley Vlotman/Gallo Images

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Dylan Jack