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Township youths tackle South Africa's 'white sport': rugby

In the black Johannesburg township of Diepsloot, one volunteer coach is teaching children the basics of rugby.

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Yet if Mr. Habana were to walk through the uneven rugby field at Diepsloot, he probably would go unnoticed. Most kids who show up to learn the sport from Bafana Thawuzeni don't have a television, let alone cable TV, and few have ever seen a rugby game. Their reasons for choosing rugby are much purer: They simply like the ability to bring one of their fellow players to the dust – and not get into trouble for doing so.

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On a recent afternoon, the Diepsloot players were busy getting to know the basics of rugby – sprints and passing and squats to strengthen their leg muscles. Most boys play barefoot so that they don't wear out their school shoes, often the only pair of shoes they have. Their field is a gently sloping washout zone below a large earthen dam, vacant of squatter shacks because of the possibility of the earthen dam giving way.

And their coaches are two young fitness trainers who know that the real value of sports is not necessarily in grooming future Brian Habanas, but in keeping young boys out of trouble.

Passing by a liquor store near the field, coach Thawuzeni sighs and says, "Alcohol, that's what brings these communities down. These kids need to have some other excitement in their lives, otherwise they will get into trouble."

Thawuzeni knows what he is talking about. As a young boy in the eastern state of Kwa-Zulu Natal, Thawuzeni admits that he was involved in all sorts of antisocial activity, including gambling and, occasionally, theft. But when he settled down and devoted himself to sports, he cleaned up his act. This year, he decided to teach himself how to play rugby by watching the best team in the business. In 2007, the South African Springboks won the World Cup rugby championship.

"I've never played the game before. I just learned it by watching TV," Thawuzeni says, as his assistant, Odirile "Fire" Pitsoane, urges the young players to do jumping jacks and a flock of sheep appears on the outskirts of the field to graze. But while he knows soccer players, like many a township boy, he thinks rugby is a better game for blacks to learn, if only because there is more money in that sport than in soccer.

The two young coaches, who volunteer their time two hours a day, never know how many kids will show up each day. Sometimes parents complain that their children need to stay home to do chores; others worry that rugby is a rough sport for a child.

"Speaking the truth," says Mr. Pitsoane, "they don't know rugby. So what we try to do is work with strength, endurance, flexibility, and we'll deal with the rules later."

One of the bigger boys, 13-year-old Andile Sopisa, says that he loved rugby the first time he saw it. He happened to be passing by this weed-strewn lot when he saw Thawuzeni's young charges running at each other and tackling each other to the ground. Andile's friends all ran away, but he came down to join the players and he's come ever since.

"Other sports are not good for me," says Andile, indicating his rather large frame, "but for rugby, I'm just right." He admits he's never watched a rugby match before, "but I like it when I play. I like to score."

Johannes Masetla, a scrawny 1l-year-old in a ragged, orange T-shirt, says his first time playing rugby was tough and a little terrifying. "I was afraid of being tackled," he says. But dusting himself off that first day, he stood up, smiling. "If people can do this to me," he says, "I can do it to them, too."

With the 2010 soccer World Cup being held in South Africa, Thawuzeni knows that he might lose some players to soccer. But he says, "at least they will know that they can play rugby – they will know it's not a white sport."