With Connect Sports Academy’s third rugby season just about done and dusted, it’s staggering to take a step back and see how far our athletes have come.
Connect Sports Academy has had nine youngsters playing representative rugby this year. Two of the boys, Ilitha Ntinini and Akha Mjawule, a flyhalf and a scrumhalf, have just been selected for the Western Province Under 13 sevens team for an inter-provincial sevens tournament in Bloemfontein. It’s the third time they have been selected together for a provincial squad.
Two of our U15 boys, Lukhanyo “Boepa” Vokozela and Lamla Nunu, a hooker and a tighhead prop, have also been picked by Western Province for their Iqhawe Week team in Johannesburg. Most amazing of all is that these boys only started playing the game three years ago when they joined our academy, training on a dusty field in Khayelitsha, Cape Town.
We see these representative selections, as well as the seven high school bursaries awarded to our athletes in recent months, as major landmarks for our academy. This is exactly the kind of sustainable, meaningful progress we hoped we would see when we started the programme.
Unashamedly, Connect Sports Academy is not a feel-good, mass participation programme. We’re very serious about creating lasting pathways for disadvantaged kids through rugby. The mental and physical benefits of low-level participation are undeniably a good thing, but we believe there’s a huge gap in the market for helping these young people to the next level.
Why shouldn’t they be able to have the same high ambitions as those from more financially fortunate backgrounds? We want to grow well-adjusted rugby professionals into adulthood and we’re starting to map out exactly how to do that.
The 40-odd athletes in our high performance section are now between the ages of 13 and 18. A number of them have been with us for all three years of the programme and that hands-on, holistic focus on them as individuals is starting to pay dividends.
I must be honest, I’m absolutely exhausted. Tired from the almost constant travelling all over the province; honouring fixtures, training sessions, team meetings, doctors’ appointments, food deliveries, tutoring sessions and much more besides.
Starting something like this is not for the faint-hearted. When you have grand ambitions and meagre resources, you must make a plan where necessary, which usually involves making a trip anywhere between the hours of 05:00 and 21:00 to Khayelitsha or Langa or pretty much any corner of the Western Cape. Rugby development will take you to places that you never even knew existed. Often at times when most sane people are safely tucked in bed.
Given the personal circumstances of our young people and their families, our small group of staff must also take on the responsibility of acting as guardians for much of the time. Add in the daily challenges brought by ongoing poverty, institutional prejudice and continued spatial apartheid, and you’re left with an all-consuming task.
But as I begin to decompress and take stock of what we’ve been through over the last season, I know that we’re really getting somewhere.
For the past nine months we’ve been working day and night, laying the foundations for the academy to shift away from having a broad focus towards being a sustainable, bespoke high-performance programme.
We’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way. Besides our U13 group, we don’t have the depth to enter the kinds of tournaments we’ve played in over the last few months under our own name. While we’ve started to produce some seriously talented individuals, we’re a long way off from challenging the traditional school rugby powerhouses.
As a result we’ve had a few humbling experiences along the way when competing against the history, resources and reputations of Paul Roos, Paarl Gym, Monument and the rest.
But then Connect isn’t a rugby school aiming to put out a winning team – it’s about nurturing young individuals through to matriculation and beyond. We’ve set ourselves a target of managing 10 top quality athletes in each age group, from U13 to U18. This may not sound like a lot, but we’re talking about athletes who have the potential to become professionals.
We want to give these kids what they deserve: access to the best resources and opportunities available.
A major focus for us is creating our own high-performance centre. Instead of the kids having to travel all over the city, we want them to be able to train in one dedicated facility that we can call our own. The consistency and control this would give us is essential for their long-term development.
In 2019 we plan to launch our first “rugby finishing school”. When our first group of athletes finish Grade 12, we want to take a year to prepare them – physically, mentally and emotionally – for professionalism. Why after finishing school? It is often the period when talented individuals lack guidance and support when it’s needed most – and fall out of the system.
So as we move into off-season, we won’t be resting on our laurels. Instead of racing off to make it in time for our next training session or fixture, we’ll be planning away and working hard to find a title sponsor for our high-performance facility.
It’s not as romantic as cute kids running around playing mini rugby, but it’ll make all the difference in allowing us, and them, to create the kind of long-term sporting transformation of which South Africa can be proud. DM