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Rugby’s contrast of the haves and have-nots remains starkly evident at grassroots level

Murray Ingram is the co-founder of Connect Sports Academy, the SA Sport Industrys 2016 Development Programme of the Year.

Rugby season is here and so are all the challenges that come with grassroots development. How is a promising young rugby player supposed to hone his (or her) skills when their nearest facility is dilapidated and 5km away?

Rugby season is upon us!

This week saw many of our Connect Sports Academy kids playing their first round of 2017 fixtures. We’re now in our third season and we’ve made a few adaptions to our programme. We’ve decided to work a lot more behind the scenes, focusing on honing the skills of our elite athletes as well as helping to build lasting feeder structures in the communities in which we work.

As a result, game day is certainly a lot less stressful for me. Last season I found myself coaching up to four teams on match day, often at different venues across the city.

Last Saturday I first headed to the Northern Suburbs to watch three of our boys in action against Tygerberg High School. All three are students at the Western Cape Sports School, are in the Under-15 category and were also starters in the side that won the 2017 Rondebosch 10s tournament last month. While it’s still early days, this partnership is looking promising as our academy strives to grow  by working with our partners in transformation. They also won their match at Tygerberg, if you were wondering.

At school, the boys are part of a solid rugby setup, with dedicated coaches who are putting together what looks to be a formidable Under-15 team. Most importantly, the boys are getting to practise pretty much every day, in an environment far better than what they were used to.

On top of that, because they’re in the boarding house, so they’re getting well fed too. This allows me to focus on their individual athletic requirements and address whatever shortcomings they have as young sportsmen. We still need to start a crowd-funding campaign to make sure their school fees are covered for this year and beyond – but we’ll get there.

From Tygerberg we headed to Khayelitsha Stadium to watch 15 of our boys playing for the Western Province hub team against Spine Road High School. The U14s, U15s and U19s all secured good victories and our new working relationship with Western Province also looks promising.

But while this paints a pretty picture, the stark contrast in resources weighed heavily on me. I couldn’t help but notice the difference in playing facilities between Tygerberg High School and the Khayelitsha Stadium. Tygerberg had three beautiful fields to play on. The Khayelitsha Stadium also has three, but they’re in far inferior condition.

This is heartbreaking, considering this is the only stadium in Khayelitsha where you can play rugby. Considering Tygerberg High isn’t exactly a rugby powerhouse, yet have facilities available to them that are far superior compared to tens of thousands of kids in Khayelitsha, simply underscores the battle we face when it comes to transformation at grassroots level.

At Connect, we stress the importance of resources as a critical part of transformation. And it’s an area where many people continually  miss the point when discussing the subject of transformation. The transformation targets that have been set are definitely attainable but only if we address the resource deficiency that affects so many of our young sports people.

An example from our academy: one of our young players is a talented flyhalf. The one thing he really needs to work on is his goal kicking. How does he do that when the nearest (and only) rugby poles are 5km away from him?

As a coach working in this environment, the challenge isn’t merely a rugby one, it’s a logistical one. How the hell do I create an environment conducive to excellence when we have limited access to one, very poorly maintained facility?

The answer is: we adapt. Places like the Green Point Urban Park, Cape Town, and the Makhaza Urban Park, Khayelitsha, are critical to our goal. They are free, well-maintained facilities, but they are not without their challenges.

This weekend is a long weekend, without any fixtures. To counter this, we planned a big chunk of specialised training for our elite athletes – but the City of Cape Town had other ideas. A Lumineers concert will be hosted in the middle of our training field in Green Point Park.

Now, instead of focusing on the performance related issues, we’re back to the logistical issue. Where do we train? And how do I get the kids there?

There’s no quick fix to these challenges. I just wish the sporting fraternity would start by acknowledging that there isn’t a level playing field. And government, business and the relevant sporting administrators need to put time and money into ensuring that there are adequate facilities in disadvantaged communities.

Otherwise we will forever be relying on the funnelling system of private and formerly Model C schools to produce our rugby talent. Meanwhile thousands of talented kids will be left languishing on township street corners around the country. DM


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