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Transformation is a long game – it took us three years to see real results

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

This week, two of our junior high performance athletes, Akha Mjawule and Aya Machuli, were awarded full scholarships to attend the prestigious SACS high school in Cape Town. They will join a third youngster, Siviwe Kewana, who came through the system of our partners, Vusa Academy, at Bishops Prep School.

This is a hugely exciting time and we hope it will be the beginning of many bright academic and sporting futures. At the time of writing, at least two more boys are in line for similar scholarship opportunities in the near future.

What Connect Sports Academy has achieved underscores once again why transformation and high performance don’t have to be mutually exclusive. It’s also a reminder why transformation has to be played as a long game with financial, logistical and emotional investment required to make it work.

Here’s what we’ve done so far.

We’re halfway through our third full rugby season, which makes this a vital year for us. When we started, we set ourselves a number of goals over this initial three-year cycle. We understood that there were no quick fixes and that operating in a space such as sporting transformation and development left us with few benchmarks to aspire to.

After consulting a number of seasoned coaches including Labeeb Levy, a professional coach with Western Province, who now runs a lot of our skills training, we expected year three to be where we’d start seeing the results of the foundations we had laid.

We began with a large group of children aged either nine or ten. This is a great age to start. Kids are super keen and yet to be influenced by many of the anti-social issues that teenagers are affected by, particularly in challenging environments such as Khayelitsha, where the legacy of apartheid remains a daily reality.

In year one we played a lot of touch rugby. We maintain that touch is a great way to introduce kids to the sport. You can play it on almost any surface and because there’s no contact, youngsters can even play competitive matches against adults.

Our first full contact fixtures were played in April 2015. It was immediately apparent that our juniors, in particular our Under 11s, weren’t far off the pace, while our seniors took a few hidings.

By the end of 2015, some of the kids in our U11 team, in particular Aya and his team-mate Ilitha “Mister” Ntinini, were already showing glimpses of their enormous talent. They even won their first tournament: the Jan Van Riebeek 7s in Cape Town.

Year two was one of consolidation. We were still very much a grass roots, mass participation initiative but we’d settled on a core group of about 30 young people who showed promise. 

We also no longer needed to actively recruit. Connect athletes were doing that for us, telling their mates about what they were doing and bringing the most keen along to practice. One of the funniest things was the tight forwards actively recruiting other mafuthas. They’d realised that rugby was indeed a home for those who are a little bit larger.

By the end of year two, our juniors really started making waves. Mister, Aya and a quiet boy called Akha were standouts in the U12 side. As a means to gauge their progress against their peers, we sent them to Western Province trials. Mister and Akha were selected for the WP U12B side and Aya narrowly missed out on selection, making it all the way to the final round.

We’re now halfway through year three. We have adapted the model so that we are focused on being a fully fledged high performance academy. We’ve handed over a lot of our grass roots, mass participation work to our partners at the Vusa Academy. This frees us up to focus every day on helping the most talented athletes in our system fulfil their potential.

As a result, on top of the SACS scholarships, we’ve won six matches out of six at the Bishops Prep School Skeeles 7s, placed three of our U15 boys at the Western Cape Sport School on partial scholarships and Mister and Akha again made the WP U13 team. Sesethu Mtshazi, our most senior athlete, is also in the WP women’s squad at just 19 years of age.

Our progress has been anything but linear but as we take stock of how far we’ve come, we realise that we are in fact getting somewhere. Most importantly, we are really getting a handle on how to bring talented but disadvantaged kids through the system.

This process is far from flawless but we know pretty well what is required and what we want to achieve over the next three-year cycle. Priority number one is to find our own, designated high performance facility. Most of our sessions are either done in Cape Town’s Green Point Park or at one of our partner’s facilities. This isn’t ideal, particularly for the older athletes, who need to spend more time working on their strength and conditioning. We need something like an old bowling club with an office, a small gym, change rooms and a small field. We also desperately need a seven-seater vehicle. With our athletes playing more representative rugby we have a greater need for a vehicle to cart them around the city and beyond.

But what excites us is that these new challenges come as a result of our success so far. Along with our athletes, we’re committed to building on what we’ve started, so here’s to the next three years – you might even see our first professional. DM


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