Schools scrum down in quest to lure black players

Bulls flyhalf Handre Pollard. (Gallo)

Bulls flyhalf Handre Pollard. (Gallo)

The school rugby season has just concluded in most of the country and for many pupils in their matric year that will be the last time they will ever touch the oval ball on the field of play. The healthy state of the game in South Africa is in spite of – not because of – the numbers who play at school.

The South African Rugby Union (Saru) has been tasked by the government with transforming the game, yet every year it has to watch hundreds of players of colour walk away from rugby, never to return. It has, therefore, become absolutely crucial for professional rugby structures to identify black talent early, nurture it and persuade it to make rugby its career.

It is no secret that Craven Week has become something of a cattle market, with academies and agents queuing for the signatures of hot new talent. The programme for this year’s Craven Week in Middelburg featured full-page advertisements for the academies of Western Province, the Sharks, Stellenbosch and the Cheetahs. Only one union, the Blue Bulls, chose to advertise itself.

It is an irony not lost on some of the more impecunious unions that the Bulls have scouting structures second to none, yet their senior side in this year’s Currie Cup looks woeful. Last year the union signed 50 players at Craven Week and two of those, the Kriel twins, have already played in the senior side. But for the Bulls the real work begins at under-16 and even under-13 levels.

Steady migration
Saru has annual tournaments for the best players from those age groups and the unintended consequence has been a steady migration north of the best youngsters, particularly those of colour. So at this year’s Craven Week the Bulls fielded a side augmented by players who began their lives and school careers in the Western and Eastern Cape.

Two of the best were among those who played for South African Schools in the recent series against France, England and Wales. Embrose Papier is a scrumhalf who represented Boland at rugby and athletics, whereas Ashton Fortuin is a lock who hails from Barkly East. Papier is now a pupil at Garsfontein High School in Pretoria; Fortuin attends Southdowns College in Centurion.

In June this year Affies (Afrikaanse Hoër Seunskool) pulled out of a fixture with Garsfontein. Pierre Edwards, the headmaster of Affies (and a former Springbok), was quoted as saying: “Affies have a policy that we do not play against schools that use so-called post-matrics or mercenaries.”

It is the last word that opened a can of worms. Persistent rumours state that the Bulls are placing players, identified by their scouts in the Cape, with specific schools in the Pretoria area. Garsfontein issued a statement responding to Edwards: “In 2011 Garsfontein’s governing body decided that development, transformation and integration should happen at all levels in the school. As a top Afrikaans school in Pretoria, we have taken the lead in this initiative.

“Consequently, opportunities for learners of the same culture and language at various levels have been created, not only in sport, but also in the fields of culture, academics and care. The current students in the first team are not mercenaries as alleged, but are part of the system that is now in its fourth year. Several of the former students had already matriculated last year.”

Clearly the problem is not confined to Pretoria. Last week it was announced that Hilton College in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands would not be playing rugby against Glenwood in Durban for the foreseeable future.

Injury risk
Hilton headmaster Peter Ducasse explained: “Glenwood’s fairly recent strategy has, in our firm opinion, now moved them into a different league [and brings] an increased risk of injury.”

Ducasse was coy about what that “strategy” is, but mentioned increasing professionalism as an aside. Two years ago Glenwood appointed Siyabonga Tom as first-team captain. Tom, a pacy winger from the Eastern Cape, went to Craven Week with the Sharks in 2011 and on the back of that played for South African Schools the same year.

But in May 2012 it was revealed that Tom had a falsified identity document and that, far from being recently turned 18, he was in fact 22, or possibly even 23. The storm broke during a school holiday and Tom did not return to Glenwood.

It is alleged that he is now playing for Spring Rose in the Eastern Cape, campaigning under the name of “Mphuma” Tom. He appears on South African Rugby’s official website as Phumezo Orlando Tom and his birthdate is now listed as December 9 1989, as opposed to the November 27 1994 he used while playing for South African Schools.

There are two things at play here. One is the increasing lengths to which schools are apparently prepared to go to transform their rugby teams. The other is the money that agents in the pay of unions can promise to children willing to lie about their backgrounds.

Intriguingly enough, the Blue Bulls advertisement in this year’s Craven Week programme carries the images of three of its Springboks: Jan Serfontein, Handré Pollard and Akona Ndungane. Serfontein went to Grey High School in Port Elizabeth, Pollard to Paarl Gimnasium and Ndungane to Hudson Park in East London.

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