Athletics makes better rugby players

The outstanding performances of the KZN U16 and U18 rugby teams at Grant Khomo and Coca-Cola Craven Week this year were exceptions to the generally disappointing performances over the past number of years.

In one-on-one situations the boys from outside KZN over the years have generally appeared to have the upper hand on their KwaZulu-Natalian counterparts.

Why is this? One man who has experience from inside the KZN enclave and on the Highveld strongly believes (and he is not alone among KZN schoolboy rugby aficionados) it is due to the fact that those provinces such as the Western Cape and Gauteng placing a greater emphasis on the athletics sports code produce better rugby players as a rule. Affies, Waterkloof, Menlo Park, Paarl Boys, Paarl Gim, Grey College etc.

Ruan Lombard played scrumhalf for Affies (Die Witbulle), has a degree in sports psychology from UJ, is head of physical education at Maritzburg College and was the MC U16A rugby head coach in 2017. Next year he moves to DHS where teaching mathematics and coaching the U16A are his initial priorities.

“Going back a bit, if you look at Springbok Fourie du Preez… (who became one of the greatest scrumhalves in the world). Before playing for the Witbulle it was said that he was too slow to get higher honours in rugby … so during the December holidays he did speed work with the athletes  and that helped him (achieve at Affies and thereafter). Another bloke is Bulls and Bokke number eight Pierre Spies… Pierre Schoeman and Jean Schoeman, the Sharks and Bulls front-rankers, both did shot put at school.

Ruan Lombard continues: “You can see the difference on the rugby field. In my matric year (2008) both our wings ran 10.4 and 10.9 respectively for the 100m event and our 8th man Hendrik Hoogenboezem was part of the relay team. Our one centre was the javelin champion. That’s just to name a few. Affies prides itself on its 100m relay sprint teams and so this filters through onto the rugby field.”

Ruan says athletics, particularly in the first school term gives boys a physical, mental and emotional self-confidence, self-discipline to tackle the rigours of the looming rugby season – and this can be applied to boys in the other major winter sports codes, hockey and soccer.

“Athletics is all about competition, it’s a breeding ground for mental- and self-discipline. In Gauteng, for example the Inter-High Athletics we have 25 schools coming to watch, you want to be the best. This can be done in the KZN capital and midlands, as well as the Durban region. Then a KZN Athletics Day bringing the best together… then the community gets involved, they become hugely popular calendar events.”

The 100m, 200m track events and long jump are focus areas for the backline rugby players and possibly one or two loose forwards; maybe the 400m to 800 and 1500m for stamina in the case of certain rugby players and positions; the field events like shot put, discus, javelin for the front-rankers and locks plus plus…

“They help rugby players and those in other sports codes develop agility, balance, their speedwork… Once you go into the rugby or hockey season the difference now is that your speedwork, agility etcetera is already done (and it’s not just “boring” shuttle runs and the like). Mentally you are in a good place too. Allied with a good conditioning programme in the gym, it instills so much physical and mental positivity, discipline in the boys before the rugby\hockey season even starts. Then it’s a case of skills work with ball or stick in hand, the rest of pre-season is already done.”

Ruan says KZN lacks this focus and it needs to be promoted in the interests of all sports codes as it will deliver more consistent performances  for KZN at national weeks.

“I think (2017 KZN and SA Schools centre) Conan le Fleur is a Western Cape boy who came to Glenwood in KZN. His first tackle… on the Blue Bulls centre… set the tone for the KZN win and set them up for a successful Craven Week. It is also important to instil a sense of fun into the pre-season… the athletics can do this. If you push the boys there has to be a reason behind it. In KZN the rugby boys often wait for the coach to give them extra work. You want the boys to ask for a bag of balls, to want to train on their own… Fez Mbatha the KZN and SA Schools hooker from Maritzburg College is one who did so and he reaped the rewards.”

Maritzburg College biokineticist Jason Greeff is in full agreement: “It’s all about running mechanics in many sports codes – and that is where athletics coaching comes in … most boys haven’t been taught from a young age how to run efficiently, so from a bio-mechanical point of view more emphasis on athletics in the first term will aid speedwork, fitness and injury prevention, the benefits will cross-over into rugby, hockey and football, to name just three.”

One school in particular is perfectly placed to benefit from the opportunities that athletics in the first term brings to the major winter sports codes.

Maritzburg College deputy headmaster co-curricular Brandon Swart said that the almost-completed world-class athletics stadium across the road from the school will add exponential value.

“Our athletics season has been moved from the third to the first term primarily to better position our school championship athletics event but the spin-off this is going to bring to all our sports codes, especially those in pre-season like rugby and hockey is going to be tremendous. So whilst these boys are going to be having heats and training towards the school athletics championships it’s also going to assist their speed training, their sprint training, running styles for all the other codes and this is going to improve our other sports codes without us even realising it.”

Swart said the new athletics stadium is also a springboard for revitalising athletics in the region. “The stadium is of world-class standard … the tartan track, the facilities will allow our coaches to expand on their ability to coach but also it means that athletics can run concurrently to everything else we are doing, so there is no longer any need to take out two grass hockey fields or a cricket field to paint in an athletics track, as in the past.

“We no longer have to force the athletics programme into a space, it now can happen naturally and that’s what this facility literally across the road from Maritzburg College provides for us.

And the advantages of this new athletics stadium to the greater KZN capital and midlands community of schools speaks for itself.

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