‘Hilton, stop poaching our sports stars’

The heads of a group of boys’ schools in Gauteng have asked the country’s most expensive private school, Hilton College, to stop “poaching” their top sports players.

At least three principals from the 11 boys’ schools confirmed to the Mail & Guardian this week that a letter was sent late last year expressing concerns about the transfer of boys from several Gauteng schools to Hilton. The principals did not want to be identified.

The head of a top government boys’ school in Gauteng said in an emailed response: “There is no doubt that they [Hilton College] have attracted a number of boys from Gauteng schools, otherwise there would have been no need for the letter.”

According to a popular website, SchoolboyRugby Blog, the letter mentioned the need for good values, asked for mutual respect and asked Hilton, a prestigious boys’ school in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands where tuition and boarding fees this year amount to R253 660, to refrain from “poaching” their players.

The principal said: “Poaching in any shape or form is against the spirit of our fellowship as schools. Poaching in high school sport is a huge and significant issue. I would hate to know the monetary value of all these movements.”

He added: “I think that Hilton have some questions that need answering, as do a number of schools in KwaZulu-Natal and a particular co-educational school on the West Rand in Gauteng.

“Sadly, the parents involved in the trading need to take a lot of the blame because it is more often than not they who initiate all the shenanigans in the hope of free education. We, the schools, must also shoulder a great deal of blame as we are active participants in the process,” he said.

A principal at one of the affected schools told the M&G that a hockey star, who also played provincially, moved to Hilton College late last year after he was offered a full scholarship. He said they accidentally stumbled on a photograph of the boy in Hilton colours on Facebook.

“We contacted the school and we had our say, and they knew exactly how we felt. We thought it was very unethical the way they did it. After we contacted them, there was quite an ugly thing and they then wanted to withdraw the scholarship.”

He said it was decided at a meeting of the heads of Gauteng boys’ schools late last year that one of them should write to Hilton, on behalf of all the affected schools, indicating that they did not agree with the school’s recruitment policy.

“There are certain schools that people don’t want to play against any more. You play them on the Saturday and on the Monday your pupils are gone. I’m dead serious.”

A top rugby player from Johannesburg’s Helpmekaar Kollege also recently joined Hilton but Helpmekaar’s principal, Klaus König, denied that he was poached.

König said the parents’ decision to remove their son from Helpmekaar and enrol him at Hilton was not based on rugby considerations.

But he declined to comment on whether the learner was a top rugby player, saying: “That doesn’t matter; it’s not an issue.”

Hilton made headlines in 2014 after announcing that it was going to stop all rugby fixtures against Durban’s Glenwood High because they saw “no educational value [for any of the players] in playing matches where the contest was decidedly one-sided”. This was after they lost heavily to Glenwood.

Hilton has since employed professionals such as former Sharks assistant coach Brad Macleod-Henderson, who is head coach of the school’s first rugby team, and former South African cricketer Dale Benkenstein to improve learners’ performance on the sports field.

Responding to the blog, a writer who said he was a former learner at Hilton wrote: “When boys debate which school is better, they say: ‘Our rugby team is better than yours’ rather than: ‘We got more distinctions than you.’ ”

Another commentator wrote: “Having chatted to some current Hilton boys and old boys, there is a definite divided opinion. Some boys are very unhappy with the new recruits, as these mercenaries are taking the place of their mates … and as we know, private school rugby success is built on brotherhood and building a team through hardship.”

Hilton’s principal, George Harris, said the issues raised by the M&G were “private matters”, but he did confirm that the allegations of “poaching” were being investigated.

“Hilton has always respected the collegiality which exists among schools in this country and will continue to do so to our mutual benefit. Any issues which arise are dealt with between headmasters in the spirit of goodwill which exists between these schools.”

Harris said that, like other schools, Hilton strives to be the best it can in all areas, including academics, culture and sport. 

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