Rugby in the Eastern Cape is reminiscent of the role once played by Crimea or Poland in 19th century Europe – a disputed pocket trampled on by pretty much everyone.
Whether it be the South African Rugby Union (Saru), the Xhosa political elite or those who claim the province gets given preferential status that far outweighs its rugby importance, you rather feel everyone knows best what’s best for the region.
The Eastern Cape’s long-term cause hasn’t been helped in recent weeks by its appalling Currie Cup form. Going into this weekend’s round of matches, the Eastern Province (EP) Kings have played nine and lost nine, with a single point gained compared with log-leaders Western Province’s 39.
The Kings’s form has become so dodgy that they’ve conceded twice as many points as they’ve scored; the sides immediately above them on the log – the Griquas and Pumas – having won at least three and four matches respectively.
The Kings, it must be said, are fast becoming the knaves of the local game, despite their pretensions to rugby royalty and increasingly hollow promises that the tide is turning.
Their Currie Cup season is unlikely to get better; in fact, with injuries and a loss of confidence, it’s likely to get worse.
Yet the rugby ecosystem is full of complex organisms hidden from view. This season, for example, was Port Elizabeth’s Grey High School’s best for years: it won 16 out of 20 matches, beating Paul Roos, Wynberg Boys, Selborne and, importantly, Grey Bloem for the first time in 10 attempts with a score of 27-20.
Grey contributed three players to the South African Schools side and seven to the EP Craven Week side that handsomely pipped South Western Districts in the final of this year’s Craven Week in Middelburg.
This isn’t bad for a school of only 860 boys, particularly when one considers that, according to Neil Bielby, the school’s director of sport, a good number of this year’s first XV will be coming back in 2015 because they are still in grade 11.
Several Grey boys from last year’s matric group have gone into the Saru Kings Academy, one of three Saru and Lotto-funded academies in the larger Cape, the other two being based in East London and George.
“We’re here explicitly to produce professional rugby players of colour and retain them in the province,” says Robbi Kempson, the former Springbok prop and current academy manager.
“We started in October 2010 and so far we’ve had four intakes. We’ve deliberately kept it pretty small, with 26 in the first year and 30 in the second. I’d say 98% of our boys come from traditional rugby schools like Dale, Queens, Nico Malan, Grey, Framesby. Only if there’s a specific vacancy do we look elsewhere.”
Although the boys at the academy are required to study for degrees or diplomas at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, they are also expected to play rugby.
This they do in the provincial under-19, under-21 and Vodacom Cup sides, with this year’s EP Kings under-19 team arguably being the most impressive side.
They’ve lost by three points to the Sharks and by a point to Western Province’s under-19 in recent weeks, but before that they burgled a good four-point win against Free State and also boast a win against the Golden Lions.
The EP Kings under-21 side have notched up some impressive wins, too, although at first glance the standard of their opposition is not quite what it is for the under-19s.
While the curve seems generally upwards, Kempson’s job is not without its stresses. Agents are the bane of his life (“They’re despicable human beings”) and he notes that when the academy draws from beyond the boundaries defined by traditional rugby schools, the boys concerned are nearly always behind in their development.
This applies most noticeably, he says, to outlying or platteland schools. The late Danie Craven was of the opinion that such schools were wellsprings of future Springbok talent. Clearly this is no longer the case.
Even in the traditional schools, the number of black boys as a proportion of the first XV squad is sometimes disappointingly small.
Bielby says that of this season’s squad of 25, three boys were black, five coloured and the rest white. Earlier this season Affies played Grey College in a televised match without a black player in sight.
This means many things but most obviously it means that traditional talent-producing schools clearly pay lip service to transformation and that the government and Saru are attempting to re-engineer the system through quotas and targets too late in the life cycle of young players.
A Bryan Habana or Kagiso Rabada (in cricket) are always going to come along, but it is moot whether good black rugby and cricket players are being delivered by the system in sufficient numbers.
Kempson will rightfully point out that this is exactly the shortfall he’s trying to address. The academy he manages has only had four years to prove its mettle but already the signs are that the province is retaining its best talent.
Soon that talent will be in a position to push the Kings off the Currie Cup table.