Coca-Cola Craven Week celebrates 50 years

Written by Hannes Nienaber

The greatest rugby tournament for schoolboys in the world hits a milestone this year as it celebrates half a century of the best Under-18 rugby this country has to offer. This festival of rugby will strike away any winter blues as it explodes onto the field at Polokwane, Limpopo from 8 - 13 July.

The very first Craven Week took place in 1964 in East London, the year of the South African Rugby Board’s 75th Jubilee and was designed to be a celebration of schoolboy rugby. At the time Danie Craven said, “The Board wants the game played in the right spirit. That includes: attacking, adventurous, open, constructive rugby, without regard to result, and without deviating from the game. If our schoolboys can be imbued with such a spirit, it will seep through to our national approach, to the advantage of all.”

Indeed, many a Coca-Cola Craven Week star has gone on to become a Springbok hero like Schalk Burger senior (1973) and Schalk Burger junior (2001) running on field for Western Province and Boland respectively. Other well-known legends include John Smit, Percy Montgomery and Victor Matfield who have all played over 100 games for the Boks, as well as Francois Pienaar, Joost Van Der Westhuizen, Bob Skinstad, Ashwin WIllemse, Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira and Pat Lambie.

That historic first kick-off in 1964 was a somewhat haphazard affair as for many provinces it was a novelty to choose a junior provincial team. Some provinces had been picking teams to represent them for years while others, like Western Province, had never. Western Province asked its long- standing schools to nominate players and cobbled together a team that did remarkably well, much better than some of the expertly chosen teams. Fifteen provinces sent teams to East London and out of this inaugural event came names like André de Wet, Andrew van der Watt, Mike Jennings and Joggie Jansen who went on to play rugby for South Africa.

In 1974 for the first time ever, a national schools team was chosen from the best players at Craven Week. Since then, a SA schools team has been chosen every year and though it is still considered a festival of schoolboy rugby and as such there is no official winner, there is no doubt that the last match on the last day is regarded as the final and that the team that wins that are considered the Coca-Cola Craven Week champions.

The next big change to the tournament came in 1980 when Danie Craven forced the organisers to open the festival to players of all races. This forward-thinking move took place fourteen years before apartheid officially ended. In 1987 the Project Tournament was introduced which used a 50/50 quota system and had 16 teams taking part by 1991. The best team from this Project Tournament then went on to play at Craven Week with Springbok players Justin Swart and Etienne Fynn emerging, and Louis Mzomba who became the first Xhosa-speaking international referee. Fynn went on to be the first player of colour chosen for SA Schools at the 1990 Coca-Cola Craven Week. By 1991 the original 16 Coca-Cola Craven Week teams had doubled into 30 and the diversity of those years saw many a great player emerge due to the inclusion of the Western Province League and SA Project team, exceptional players like Chester Williams and Cornel Wiese.

Today the concept of Craven Week has expanded into a spectacular Coca-Cola Youth Weeks aimed at identifying and nurturing talent within South Africa that includes: Under-13 Craven Week where young lads discover a taste for provincial rugby; Under-16 Grant Khomo Week named after a remarkable man who achieved excellence in the game of rugby and as an administrator against all odds; Under-18 Academy Week which is aimed at development and transformation; and LSEN Weeks designed for Learners with Special Education needs which itself has been going since 1982 and serves as a platform for youngsters with learning, visual and hearing impairments and epilepsy to compete. A top LSEN XV team is then chosen and goes on to compete at Academy Week.

So from the hula-hooping, flower power, grooviness of the sixties all the way to the tech-savvy, speediness of 2013, Coca-Cola Craven Week has endured and entrenched itself into the hearts and minds of the South African sporting-mad public. Over half a century 243 Springboks have graduated through the Under-18 Coca-Cola Craven Week and not only is it a festival celebrating schoolboy rugby but has also become its holy grail – an event that is held in high regard both by the players and the many “trainspotters” of the rugby world.

This special 2013 edition of the Coca-Cola Craven Week tournament will see exactly 440 of the country’s top school rugby players take part in 20 teams that includes sides from Namibia and Zimbabwe. For those who can make it to Polokwane (just two and half hours from Pretoria) get ready for not only a feast of rugby, but also a momentous occasion in South Africa’s history. This is “where heroes are made” and the hottest, young talent South Africa has to offer is showcased. For all those too far to travel, SuperSport will be televising the games so you too can witness the greats of South Africa amongst us.

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