Rugby passions inspire social change
Graham Jenkins in Durban
June 24, 2009
The Vikings Rugby Academy is hoping to produce the future international stars of tomorrow © Getty Images
Rugby has long been used as a force for good, such is the charitable nature of certain people at the heart of the game. One of those at the forefront of that crusade is Paul Flanagan, founder and director of coaching at the Vikings Rugby Academy in Port Shepstone on the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast.
The Academy, formed just four years ago, was established to identify and develop talent in the local region in the hope of providing players for the provincial game and beyond. However, an intense rugby education is only part of the process with Christian-based life skills and community service key elements of a journey they hope will produce well-balanced young men who can serve as role models to future generations.
The Vikings Rugby Academy is not unique in itself or in its religious ties but it has a distinctive setting - being situated on the same grounds as a church. The place of worship in question is the Norwegian Settlers Church on the outskirts of Port Shepstone, where Flanagan has seen hundreds of young men benefit from his brainchild.
"The person we are trying create is a complete rugby personality that can coach, can referee, can play and administrate," explains Flanagan. "And if that doesn't work out we try to give them an education so they have something to fall back on. These youngsters nowadays go out, they give everything up, sacrifice it all to go play provincial rugby. Then they have one bad injury and are left with nothing. That has been a huge problem in the past but we are trying to compensate for that."
You need only a few moments in the company of the 49-year-old Flanagan to realise his passion for the game and in particular the work he and his small team are dedicated to. Born in Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia, his travels have taken him far and wide including six years in Northern Ireland, where he returned in the early 1990s to play a season with Ballymena and subsequently struck up a friendship with rugby icons Syd Millar and Willie John McBride.
"I arrived on his [Millar's] doorstep and said, 'I'm here to play rugby'," recalls Flanagan as the memory triggers a wide smile. "And he said 'where are you staying?' and I said 'I'm not'. So he says 'OK, I'll find you some accommodation'. Then I said 'what about my wife and kids?'"
It is quite clear that Flanagan takes a great deal of strength from his own faith and when you consider that he combines up to 40 hours a week working within the Academy with running his expansive farm that over-looks the spectacular Oribi Gorge then you can understand why.
The former hooker, who played until he was 38, is quick to acknowledge the efforts of the Academy's managing director and former Sharks centre Lodie van Staden but special praise is reserved for church's pastor Trevor Downham.
"The church has been a great support," revealed Flanagan, "we're lucky that the pastor is rugby mad!"
The current intake of players ranges in age from 17-23 years old and over a two year period they will complete an intense rugby education covering all elements of the game. In addition there are compulsory life skills modules that cover a variety of areas including ethics, stress management, self-esteem and social responsibility. Such themes are carried through into the community service requirement that sees students take their newly-learned skills into schools and other organisations.
The final element of their education allows them to study for a diploma in either sports management and administration or fitness with the option to take on further studies via distance learning.
The church not only provides the Academy with its own rugby field, lecture facilities and accommodation - all free of charge - it also houses a gym that is used primarily by the players but is also made available to youngsters from the local townships. An HIV/AIDS hospice can also be found on the church's grounds - filling a void in medical care available in the immediate area.
With the unstinting support of their landlords they are having a huge impact on the local community.
"There are huge gangs around here," he explains. "There are coloured and black gangs that have grown up out of the low class housing which is what happens when you push people together. What we do is we get them off the streets by getting them into gyms and rugby.
"We get some of these kids into the academy," he continued, "and even if they are not rugby orientated they enjoy the gym work and it gives them a focus and a function in life. And with the role models we've got it all works out quite well."
The Academy is not the most expensive option of its kind but the R1,100 per month fees (the price of a ticket to watch the Springboks v the British & Irish Lions) can be prohibitive for some.
"We've managed to keep costs down and governments have come on board with subsidies," revealed Flanagan. "We try and help some of the local guys from really tough backgrounds with sponsors that also come through the church. We don't just target the best players, we will take people in who have an affinity towards rugby but can't afford it. That is one of the nice things being involved with the church because they will help out where they can."
But it's not just a battle with the street kids insists Flanagan.
"We've just found a lack of discipline and a lack of respect with a lot of youngsters these days," he adds. "It's very difficult when we get a new in-take but you can certainly see the difference after three months or so. The boys are respectful, they love it here, they are like 'can I help you with that?' or 'can I carry this for you?' and those are the people that the schools like to employ when our Academy boys go out and do coaching in the community.
"As a coach, all you can get out if it is what you produce with your hands. I put effort into these boys and I see them putting effort into other people. There is no blueprint, everything is done off the cuff, and we have to adapt all the time but that's what I get out of it and it has been good enough so far to keep me doing it."
The Academy opened its doors with just 12 players but next year they are hoping to offer 100 places and work is already underway to expand their current facilities while the addition of another pitch is also planned as the Academy goes from strength to strength.
A certain well-known guidebook will tell you that Port Shepstone is, "a grim industrial and administrative centre" but one man is waging and winning a war to brighten the lives of many young people who live there.