Passion for rugby pays off

Neale Emslie

DEEPLY passionate about rugby, Paterson High School teacher Shaun Fondling could not stomach the fact that his favourite sport was virtually non-existent at the schools in his community during the first decade of the new millennium.

When soccer’s World Cup took over in 2010 and rugby almost disappeared from the school programme, the 43-year-old technology teacher said “enough” and, with his friend and Hillside teacher Kenny Joseph, he launched the Northern Areas High Schools Rugby Initiative, which is now into its second year.

“After the [soccer] World Cup, I got hold of Kenny and asked if we could not organise a rugby match with Hillside,” Fondling recalled. “I just wanted my boys to play rugby again and Kenny was keen and we arranged a match.

“At that stage, I couldn’t take it that the sport had just gone down like that because I know what a role sport played for me. Even the job I got here [Paterson High in 1996], sport played a role in that. There were three applicants for the post, but because of my sporting background I got the post and the first thing I was told was to revive rugby at the school.

“Rugby had been the major sport at Paterson, producing players like Desmond Booysen and Gavin van Eck, who played with Cheeky Watson at Kwaru. I wondered how a school with such a rich history in rugby could take such a dip, so much so that for three [to] four years there was no rugby at all.”

Fondling had come from a strong rugby background. Growing up in Schauderville, he started playing rugby as a nine-year-old with the St Mark’s Rugby Club, where his father and uncles had played. Playing flyhalf and fullback, he later joined Harlequins to play in the Grand Challenge, but Fondling’s passion was in coaching and helping children to develop.

“Even when I was in matric at Paterson, I was coaching the under-11 team and that has always been my passion,” he said.

In talks with Joseph, Fondling said the only way to get rugby going again was to come up with a solid, effective structure.

At the time, he said, they were given a boost by Sports Minister Fikile Mbabula who had encouraged schools and communities to join hands and to build and develop sport as it used to be in their own areas.

This provided Fondling and Joseph with the motivation they needed to proceed with their plan, even if it went against the system in use at EP high schools. The problem, Fondling said, was that all the schools organised their own fixtures and sent those to the EP High Schools committee for ratification.

“Some schools have their fixtures for next year already organised so we [northern areas] were largely out in the cold.

“I said to Kenny, we need to do something about the situation and come up with some sort of a plan even if we go against the system of the union.

“At the beginning, we had a lot of criticism because people thought we were trying to do our own thing. They were a bit racist towards us because they said we were just starting a coloured thing in the northern areas.

“But I said it’s not about me, it’s about the kids and you can’t discriminate against the northern areas because 50% of our children come from the townships and eight or nine or our team are black Africans.”

The first job for Fondling and Joseph was to visit the principals of the 15 northern areas high schools to get them on board. Support for the project was forthcoming, but it was not that easy, given how sport in general had died out at many schools.

Among other things, Fondling blames the fact that the subject of physical education was phased out of the school programme.

“Sport began to die out at primary school and that makes it tough to get it going at high school and kids lost the interest to play sport.

“If you don’t occupy them they join a gang or form a gang, or they drop out of school, and are lured in by the gangsters.

“These are the kids who cause problems for you and me, so I felt rather get involved with those kids – give them something to do to keep them away from bad temptations.”

Naming their programme the Northern Areas High Schools Initiative, Fondling said only four teachers arrived for the first meeting. But they were nothing if not persistent and Fondling and Joseph refused to throw in the towel.

“At that meeting, we told each teacher to go and find one more school to attend the next meeting, and at the next meeting we had six,” Fondling said.

Eventually, in the last months of 2011, they set about organising a tournament for early in 2012, kicking off with a sevens event for boys and girls, followed by the night series, a schools tournament which had run for a while in the ’90s.

“Just before the night series, we had a meeting and all 15 high schools were there,” Fondling said, “and I was so happy because I knew we were in for big things.”

In short, the northern areas rugby programme is up and running. From about five schools playing rugby three years ago, 15 schools are now involved.

Fondling said they followed the tournaments last year with a league programme, including Walmer High School, and since then they had developed and refined a model which they believe can be used in other areas which would like to revive sport where they live.

“I must also thank people like Norman le Grange of Total Gelvandale, who sponsored us last year and has helped enormously by speaking to northern areas councillors and getting them to each adopt a school to assist with costs, as well as the Department of Sport and Recreation,” Fondling said.

Most gratifying for Fondling was the response of the children.

“Even in schools like Woolhope, who had never played rugby, and St Thomas, they are attracting squads of players. It just goes to show that if you provide the opportunities, the children will be there and this can only benefit rugby and the communities in general.”

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