Children who put the game into perspective
England's Phil Clarke has found a visit to South Africa to coach in townships the perfect antidote to his World Cup final disappointment
Friday 24 November 1995
I knew that I was lucky, but never quite how lucky until I took on the biggest challenge of my life - coaching rugby league to youngsters in the notorious townships of South Africa. It is an experience that will linger forever in my mind.
Along with Brian Foley, the youth coach at the Wigan St Patrick's club, we went into places you only ever hear of as hostile and unsafe on the back of an open wagon, unsure of what was goung to be waiting for us.
Dave Southern, from Widnes, has been putting his energy into this work for several years and over 3,000 youngsters have been exposed to the game as a result. We would be all right, even in areas where the crime statistics make those in New York pale by comparison, he assured us. They would recognise the wagon and know that we were there to help.
What he did not tell us was that Monica, a voluntary worker from England who has been helping out on the project, had been stopped at gun-point in Alexandra and had her vehicle car-jacked from her a few days earlier. Had we known that, we would have been even more apprehensive than we were. I also asked myself whether I was going to be able to do anything worthwhile for the children I was supposed to work with. Our first day put my mind at ease.
We were in a Catholic orphanage in the township of Vaal, run by an Irish priest called Father Terry, who has been there for the last 20 years. The person there I will always remember is three-year-old Faith, who was suffering from malnutrition and called me Father Philip, because he assumed I was a priest.
I lifted him up, just as I had hoped to lift the World Cup at Wembley. My reward then was a loser's medal, this time a smile. Talk about restoring your faith.
We coached the skills of the game that day to over 100 children and their eye-to-hand co-ordination and agility were a pleasant surprise. At the end, we gave them rugby shirts donated by the players and parents of Wigan St Pat's under-16s and the looks on their faces were worth the whole trip.
The next few days took us to a series of coaching clinics, which have left me with a host of memories. There was Sipho, an 11-year-old from a shanty in Alexandra, who wore his Wigan shirt with such pride and assured us, with equal pride, that he was best player around.
He was good, very good. Extraordinarily courageous, he just went for the line every time, no matter what. But that was almost the norm among kids who showed such a burning desire to play the game.
Then there was Vincent, an even younger boy who took it upon himself to help us with communicating in the various languages spoken in Alexandra. He took us to his home, the two makeshift rooms where he lives with his mother. I've promised to write to him, but whether letters get delivered to places like this I somehow doubt.
There were disappointments, like the way that the media failed to turn up for a session that was arranged to publicise the work Dave is doing. It shows the uphill struggle that he has faced and still faces
I'm back in Bondi now, but the whole experience has taught me a great deal. Sport can do so much to improve those children's futures. It all puts losing a World Cup into perspective.
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