For a rugby-playing school-boy, there is immense pride in donning the colours of one’s school. There was no higher privilege, or “god-like” status for a rugby-crazy school like Maritzburg College than to wear the badge on your chest…to play for the first fifteen (1st XV).
When I arrived at College I was barely 12 years old and scared of “big school”. I had come from a 200-odd student sized school, to one that was about 1500 boys. I quickly calculated the odds of success (at rugby) and decided that I was well out of my depth. I had played against the Merchiston (Preparatory School) boys at rugby trials the year before and had fallen short, and I wasn’t about to measure myself against them again.
And then Wesley…
Wesley and I came together from Richmond Primary to Maritzburg College and he would again convince me to continue playing rugby. Without a plausible excuse, I reluctantly agreed. To my surprise I was chosen for the under 13A side. There were only two teams at u13 level. u14 Was where the action was- where most of my fellow Second-Formers (8th graders) were playing. And it looked all so intense.
Sport (and more so rugby) consumed much of my teenage years. Because I lived 30 minutes away from school, the majority of my afternoons were spent at school, and most of my Saturdays were taken up by sport. My poor parents! On the positive, it kept me from many troubles that plagued many a teenage boy. Rugby (and Athletics) would take me all over the country- to the big cities like Johannesburg and to unknown places. I would ride a train for the first time, on our many trips to Pretoria and to Bloemfontein.
In my 6th form year (grade 12, 1999), I was grateful to be selected for the 1st XV squad in the pre-season. I had in my younger years looked up to a player called Khaya Sonstele who was one of the first black Collegiates to play for the 1st XV. There was no higher achievement at school level…and here I was.
During the last two years (6th Form and Post Matric) I would fly for the first time (to George) and leave South African borders to New Zeeland.
One of the first games in that 1999 season was a fixture against Michaelhouse. It was in the early years of televised schools games of Maritzburg College . This was in the early days of televised school rugby games. At that time I was not selected for the 1st XV team, but for the 2nd XV. Playing for the second side was still a worthy achievement, but not the chief prize.
I was shattered. I had been an A-team player all along. I had developed my self-confidence and had grown confident of my chances to make the first team. The fall was from a great heights and probably well needed.
Luckily I had a few days to deal with myself and accept my fate…which I did (or maybe suppressed) by the time the Saturday game came. I have learnt in time that such moments of perceived failure are good opportunities to learn about oneself, and to practice humility. It has become a quality that I hold as one of the greatest virtues to strive for in life.
Strangely, I remember a sense of relief after this unexpected turn. There was a sense of release from the anticipated pressure of being a first-team player. Not that the results of the second side didn’t matter, or that winning wasn’t desirable at that level. However, we all knew that the first team result, and a first team win mattered more that any other team- if not the most. When in 2000 the 1st XV beat Affies (and at home), the whole school celebrated even though the large majority of our teams lost.
I just remember that that game for the 2nd side was one of the most enjoyable games that I ever played during my school days. Ironically though, the 2nd side won that day, and the 1st side lost.
I was still very disappointed not to be on TV. No “look mom, it’s me” moment.
If I recall correctly, I would play one more game for the 2nd side before being promoted to the first side, where I would play for the rest of the season. First team rugby was tough and required me to grow fast so I could fill the big boots of those who came before me- especially the black player. With the privileges that come with wearing the badge, comes the responsibility and the pressure…pressure that I would learn the hard way to handle.
During a game against Glenwood High School (on our hallowed Goldstones field), I managed to create space on the blind side and beat 2/3 players (a moment of brilliance dare I say so myself). At the key moment, and having scored before dotting down, I went for a glory-dive in the corner. THAT one dusty corner under the Kent (main) pavilion. Everyone was on their feet celebrating the obvious try.
I fumbled and knocked the balled forward. No try. Scrum on the 5- green (Glenwood) ball! *%$£!!!
I was super embarrassed…there was no-one in sight and I did the unthinkable. It was worse than scoring an own-goal. That mistake and the resultant shame would take me a few weeks to accept and move on from. It would take a fellow-player (Donavan Raw) to grab me by the lapels during one go our subsequent games and tell me to “get over it and move on”, before I would indeed shake it off and put it behind me.
Donavan and I would later in that year play together at Craven Week, for KwaZulu- Natal Schools. Two guys in that 1999 Natal Schools’ team would go on to play international rugby- Matt Stevens (for England) and Clyde Rathbone (for Australia), and a prince of Zululand.
In the winter of 1999, I would get to see and experience the next level of school boy rugby at the u18 Craven Week, in the black and white jersey.