A few weekends ago, we came to the end of the second playing season for our fledgling transformation initiative, the Connect Sports Academy. It just so happened that the weekend coincided with the final Rugby Championship fixture between the Springboks and the All Blacks in Durban.
As I reflected on the season that was and the highs and lows, it struck me that many of the experiences we have had at grassroots level over the past season could possibly provide valuable context for what is happening at Springbok level.
In the days since the fallout of that loss, a number of opinion pieces were written about what’s gone wrong with South African rugby. Some of them good and some (horribly) bad. Everyone from former coaches to esteemed journalists, fans and bloggers have chimed in. Some have provided valuable insight, others less so.
However, one thing seems to be missing in all of their collective synopses: the prevailing culture of conservatism and exclusivity in SA rugby and how it has contributed to the position that the Springboks have found themselves in.
To many, historically, the Springboks and the South African Rugby Unions have always been symbols of excellence. Two-time World Champions, leaders in the world of rugby who are renowned for their physical approach to the game.
In reality, these institutions are stuck in a cycle of exclusivity and bound to eventually fail.
Why? Because on the surface it may appear that SA rugby has built a pretty sizeable feeder system for their professional game. But in reality, it’s a system almost entirely reliant on external contributors, mainly private and formerly Model C schools.
This year’s Western Province Craven Week A side is a case in point – players from seven schools made up the side. The seven read like a who’s who of SA rugby schools. And they’re also schools that play the majority of their fixtures against one another.
This is not a criticism of these schools – in fact, some of them have become important allies in this transformation struggle – but an indictment on a system of administration that is purportedly pro-transformation.
In the build-up to last year’s Rugby World Cup, the ex-president of SARU Oregan Hoskins wrote an open letter to South African rugby fans. In it he wrote: “Our game thirsts for outstanding players and whether one emerges in a township school or from a traditional rugby school you can be sure that the system will find him and nurture him.”
After two years in the rugby development trenches, I can tell you that this statement is almost entirely false. The system will not find you. In fact, even trying to find the system can be difficult at times.
One of Connect’s biggest challenge has been to find regular, quality fixtures for our senior high performance athletes. These players certainly don’t get those kinds of fixtures at their schools. There are very few clubs in their areas that play meaningful fixtures. None of them are getting games against the so-called “traditional” rugby schools.
This is not the only challenge these players face.
Anyone who knows the game of rugby will understand what I mean when I say players aren’t born with the ability to pass left and right, or knowing how to bind correctly in a scrum or what is the correct kicking technique. Those are things you learn through hours and hours of practice.
Now if you grow up in a township, do you have the same chance of getting the kind of coaching required to develop these skills, as a kid in a traditional rugby school does? Of course not.
If we are serious about competing with the likes of the All Blacks, we have to have an authentic, inclusive system that is able to identify and nurture talent from all walks of life. One of the All Blacks’ key strengths has been how they embrace diversity. That has significantly broadened their talent pool and expanded their collective skill set as a result. They now have an excellent balance between flair and consistency.
Two of our young athletes recently represented Western Province at a junior inter-provincial tournament, a fantastic achievement for kids who come from seriously challenging circumstances. Their selection raised a whole new set of challenges though, none more so than the language factor. Kids whose first language is isiXhosa had to try to assimilate while attending practices and tournaments conducted almost entirely in Afrikaans.
I’m not saying that it was deliberate , I’m simply pointing out how systemically ingrained a prevailing culture is in South African rugby.
And this is the point of transformation – to transform the institution of rugby so that it may be able to create truly inclusive opportunities. So that children born into poverty, but blessed with talent, may still be afforded a fair opportunity to express that talent.
Our system is still not be any means equal and fair. Unless a black child is fortunate enough to attend a traditional rugby school, there are virtually no career pathways available to them in this game that we all love so much. In fact, Khayelitsha has only produced one Springbok, Jongi Nokwe, to date. The majority of other black Springboks like Siya Kolisi were just fortunate enough to find their way to more established rugby schools.
I’ve seen enough in the last two years to be absolutely certain that transformation is achievable, as long as the powers that be make a genuine attempt to assist elite grassroots development and to forge new elite career pathways. Mass participation and drop-in clinics simply aren’t enough. We need both government and private companies to support programmes like ours that look to foster excellence. DM
Murray Ingram is the co-founder of Connect Sports Academy, the SA Sport Industry’s 2016 Development Programme of the Year.