It’s always an admirable gesture when professional athletes take time out from their grueling schedules to make an impact beyond the sporting field, and that’s exactly what the Queensland Reds were able to do this week, as the 2011 Super Rugby champions gave a group of close to 100 Soweto kids the chance to get up close with their heroes.
Ten Reds players took some time out from their rest day ahead of their clash with the Bulls at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday to visit the Jabulani public park in Soweto, where they held a coaching clinic for children aged four to 17.
At the end of the session, Reds and Wallabies utility back James O’Connor — who has 44 Test caps under his belt — took off his purple boots and offered them to the youngsters. Two boys — one 13 and the other 16 — scrambled for the boots and each took one in the end.
A pair of boots is a luxury for the close to 400 players at the Jabulani Rugby Club. “We have guys here without boots and it becomes embarrassing when we take to the field and we have to go ask the opposition coaches if we can play our games barefoot,” chairman and founder Thando Mhlongo said.
O’Connor and his teammates were impressed by the talent and enthusiasm the Soweto youngsters showed.
“It’s been so awesome. I really wasn’t expecting it to be anything like this,” O’Connor said. “There are two guys I picked up in particular — one is 15 and the other 17. I think they have already been spotted by some of the Super Rugby teams. That shows the amount of talent available here.”
Playing and posing for photos with the Aussies, the kids forgot for a moment about some of the challenges they face daily.
Zwelitsha Street Park in Zola 1 in Jabulani — where the age-group teams, from under eight to the first team, train — is a public park with no rugby poles or field markings, just a patch of grass.
“Hopefully one day we will have proper facilities and we can host games here in Jabulani,” Mhlongo said. “Right now we train in a public park — anyone can come now and say they want to have a picnic, and we can’t stop them.”
In its five years, the club has been a bridge for some children to find scholarships, while others have gone on to play in provincial age-group teams.
Mhlongo expressed disappointment with the lack of help for Soweto clubs from the Golden Lions Rugby Union. “We have not seen the Lions here, not even once,” he said. “We have the Reds coming all the way from overseas, two years running. We are hoping that one day the Lions will also come here and see the potential that we have here.
“If a union really means it when they say they want to develop black players — this is the hub, this is the home.”
The Reds left two big bags full of kit from Australia for the club to use.