PLAYERS, ambulance SUPPORTERS AND ADMINISTRATORS SHOULD TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR KEEPING RUGBY SAFE, abortion writes Karien Jonckheere as she explores the events which killed Riaan Loots recently.

While Willie Loots sat holding his dying son Riaan’s hand on the side of the field as paramedics tried to revive the 24-year-old rugby player, all he could hear was the persistent shouting of one woman in the crowd. “Slaat sommer die ander donners ook dood.”
Decisions are still being made as to what will happen to the players responsible for Loots’s death during that match between Rawsonville and Delicious rugby clubs last month. But no punishment is likely to be handed out to the crowd that gathered in Rawsonville that day.

And while, Loots senior gains some comfort from the promises that have been made to deal with the violence that has permeated Boland rugby, he will only be fully convinced when he actually sees the changes implemented.

“Everything is a bit of a haze at the moment. We are still in shock,” said a devastated Loots last week. “It’s easy for those in authority to tell the press ‘this is what we are going to do’ but are they really going to do it?” he asked.

“It’s terrible what happened. This isn’t rugby. I played the game for 20 years and I never came across anything like this. Riaan had only been playing for Rawsonville for two months, and two weeks before that game he had been kicked in the chin and needed nine stitches. A week later he left the field with a bleeding eye and mouth,” added Loots.

“Certain steps have to be taken in terms of security. There is also no discipline from the spectators and as soon as the players start losing, they start playing the man without the ball,” said Loots, suggesting that responsibility lies with players and spectators as well as officials.

“That game should have been stopped after 20 minutes. Riaan was an excellent young man with such a bright future. He had even been offered a place with an English club for the off-season. He was very strong and fit but he didn’t stand a chance that day.”

Loots, a flyhalf, died from his injuries after the incident in which he was allegedly kicked in the head by the opposing team.
The Boland Rugby Union condemned the incident and appointed senior advocate Ismail Jamie to lead an independent inquiry into Loots’s death.

“We totally reject hooliganism, thuggery and inhumane incidents that cause serious injury to the players, administrators and spectators,” said a statement released by the Boland Rugby Union.

“The intolerance and the tendency to resort to violence when there are disagreements between fellow human beings is one big factor that has failed us in our attempts to transform the union,” they added. Looking to assign responsibility, Loots reckoned: “First of all, the president and management of Boland rugby need to be looking after their players. If I have sons, I must look after them. I guard over my family like they should guard their players.

“The players also need to learn to behave themselves, even if they may be losing. And the spectators are a huge problem. When we arrived at the field that day, they were already drunk and swearing, saying things like ‘slat hulle dood.’ And they influence their players,” said Loots.

One man who saw the problems within club rugby and decided to take matters into his own hands was Stoney Steenkamp who in 2004 formed Rugga SA, an organisation outside of provincial structures, which has set up numerous rugby and netball clubs run under a strict code of conduct.

“It is frightening what is currently happening in rugby. The people who are in positions of power are too afraid of making waves and don’t want to make any decisions regarding disciplining players which will lose them popularity,” said Steenkamp, whose organisation now has 50 member clubs, with 12 more signing up after the Loots incident..

“The other problem is facilities. Small towns of about 10 000 people have up to six or seven clubs which is crazy and facilities are created but they are not up to standard. The fields are too close to the spectators. There are no fences and that lends itself to violence. The spectators become too emotionally involved with what’s going on on the field.

“Referees are being victimised and alcohol also plays a major role. Spectators start drinking when the third or second team are playing and by the time the first team plays they are no longer in a position to evaluate properly. They don’t understand the rules of the game anymore and that creates chaos.

“That’s why Rugga SA have set very strict rules in place. We allow one team per town which encourages the different races to mix, facilities are inspected, the bars are never opened until after the game and with every rugby club we have started there is also a netball club. As soon as you bring the women along, most South African men start behaving themselves.

“What we’re doing is trying to get sport back on track with an emphasis on family values and building bridges because the violence in sport is just unbearable.”

This violence is not something unique to rugby, with various cases seen across the board, in soccer, cricket and even sports like tennis and hockey. On that fateful day in April 2001, 43 people were left dead at a soccer match at Ellis Park. The semifinal of the 1996 Cricket World Cup was ended prematurely because of crowd violence. Thami Tsolekile received a suspension from the sport of hockey after hitting an umpire. And in 1993 tennis player Monica Seles was stabbed in the back during a match, to name but a few examples.
What then, are some of the reason behind this kind of behaviour?

“There are so many variables involved, including individual personality factors, the particular sport, environmental and circumstantial issues,” explained sports psychologist Clinton Gahwiler who is based at the Sports Science Institute in Cape Town.

“Some would however say that sport provides a socially acceptable outlet for aggression. And yes, occasionally that aggression transcends the accepted rules of the game. It does also seem fair to assume that this is more likely to occur in sports which sanction a degree of aggression for example rugby as opposed to bowls.

“A player can learn to control such responses, by identifying common triggers, developing an alternative plan, and practicing the implementation of the plan,” added Gahwiler.

Could it be that there is something to what George Orwell once said? “Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.”

Perhaps Steenkamp’s model and the efforts of those who are determined to use sport to build bridges to unite the country can prove otherwise.

If players themselves, spectators and those in charge of the various sports bodies in the country all play their part in taking responsibility for eradicating this scourge of violence, perhaps there is still a chance that Loots’s hope can be realised. “Riaan was so motivated and I think he had already packed into 24 years what most people put into 50. I cannot begin to tell you what a big loss this is. This must never happen again.” – Heartlines Features.

By Karien Jonckheere

Written by Heartlines

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