Players, coaches do grow on trees

Zelím Nel

Jadav Payeng didn’t know whether he could solve the problem. Even if he could, he was sure it couldn’t be done quickly. He was only 16 years old and just didn’t have the resources.

What he did have was time, and a burning desire to avert disaster. Payeng made the most of both to plant a forest that is today six square kilometres in size. It took almost 40 years.

Surrounded by the river Brahmaputra in northeast India, Majuli – the world’s biggest river island – has lost more than half of its land mass to erosion since 1917.

In what would have seemed at the time like a noble but pointless attempt to combat the inevitable, Payeng began planting trees on the island sandbar in 1979.

One seedling at a time, planted in a hole he’d dug with his bare hands, Payeng attacked the problem. His life’s work has since grown into a forest – teeming with tigers, elephants and deer – that dwarfs New York City’s Central Park.

If there were any Payengs in South African rugby, we wouldn’t be faced with a sparse landscape being steadily eroded more than two decades after rugby turned professional.

We’re still paying lip service to the development of black coaches and players outside of South Africa’s rugby hives. Fallow workshops offer kids and coaches a cap and a T-shirt instead of the tools needed to plant and grow professionals, while reactive measures are taken to fast-track talent at great risk to their long-term career prospects.

The reasons are many; chief among them is money. Back when the kitty was full, rugby’s well-heeled decision-makers didn’t want to be on the hook for an expensive development programme, and now that it’s almost empty, unions are scrambling to match the lucrative offers tabled to South Africa’s best players from clubs abroad.

But the squeeze is on with a ‘strategic transformation plan’ promising a 2019 Rugby World Cup team that is 50-percent black while Mzwandile Stick has become the latest coaching asset caught in the crossfire of political appeasement.

Having made a couple of attempts over the past 12 years to pitch what I thought were good coach- and player-development ideas to a variety of decision-makers, my experience is that those at the helm are not interested in solutions that are measured in years and decades, rather than weeks or months.

Without a serious budget, there is no quick-fix to mine the vast, untapped regions of rural rugby. Remember, the Boks flew economy class to Europe in November to save money.

And the word is that the government is in no rush to give SA Rugby free access to develop and catalog a national database of schoolboy talent.

Faced with these roadblocks, and other formidable logistical issues, our rugby bosses have resorted to skimming the best black talent from the top rugby schools, while hoping that (in many cases) a process of osmosis will see retired black players evolve into quality coaches.

What South Africa has always needed is a Payeng project. Let’s face up to the fact that we don’t have the funds to solve the problem in one fell swoop and focus on doing what we can with the resources we do have.

In the rugby equivalent to planting one tree every day, let’s pick a truly rural rugby community, build and staff a small but fully-equipped academy with the best available specialist coaches and administrators, and allocate a block in the weekly schedule of SA Rugby’s director of rugby – and his support crew – for overseeing the process of identifying and grooming the best junior talent, and mentoring coaches in that area.

The wrinkles in the plan can be ironed out and tailored over the next five years and, with a better idea of what is and isn’t sustainable on a small scale, the model can then begin to be scaled for a regional and, later, national roll out.

Admittedly, it’s a long-term plan with fruits that would probably not be discernible for the first decade. But if the process had kicked off in 1996, we may have had the data required to table an effective, sustainable national development plan by 2006, and the programme would now be producing quality players coached by promising, homegrown coaches, some of whom would have professional capacity.

It sounds helluva far-fetched, but isn’t that exactly what Payeng’s mates would have told him in 1979?

- Zelim Nel

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  • Bokfan

    Brilliant article Zelim! And so true

  • Chris Mouton

    Nice article, Zelim. Inspiring! Let’s hope that real investment starts soon with Rassie at the helm.

  • humblepie

    Lack of funds is a RESULT of poor onfield performance and not a CAUSE of poor performance.
    To plant a tree every day is a good start if you do not have other options.
    Ideally we need new black superstar(s) that young rural boys can relate to and take inspiration from. Similar than what Pele did for Brazil and what Bjorn Borg did for Swedish tennis. He elevated Sweden from nowhere (with poor climate conditions to facilitate playing tennis) to a country that continued to produce stars such as Edberg etc for many years afterwards. Ditto for Spanish ladies tennis (a decade ago), Russian ladies tennis and other pockets of excellence.
    Hold thumbs for the Dyantyis, Willemses and many others of RSA. We should nurture them and make sure their feet stays grounded whilst they grow into the stars we want them to become.

  • Sean

    Zelim, have a look at these guys in Cape Town, who are doing their very best to develop rugby.

  • Nick.

    I think rugby is way, way down at the bottom of the list Zelim. What’s the point of rugby if you have no food on the table to go home to, or a decent school to educate yourself in, or a house with running water/electricity, WOW! Maybe even broadband. or a decent hospital or a safe environment to exist in. Even being interested, let alone participating in rugby is not a realistic option for most who have these worries to contend with.

    Rugby is just for the relatively rich who can afford health insurance, a lekker private school with a rugby programme, Gym maybe, A good diet. People who can’t afford pay TV can’t even watch it for free and get exposed to and learn about it like that any more, forget about affording basic health insurance to cover injury.

    Go to an average ammeteur club in England and take note of the excellent medical insurance and physio/medical support along with the good technical back up and the generally good standard of fields and facilities, the general respect for the traditions of the game. For example the hoards of volunteers who come out and ref, coach, administer and support their schools and clubs.The point I am making is that the roots, the lifeblood, the very sinews of the game in SA need work, and as the article and posters mostly suggest, the bucks just are not around.

    So I disagree with Humblepie respectfully, lack of funds IS a cause of poor performance, unless you are only talking about the elite few at the top of the SA rugby landscape. That elite aspect of rugby is only a small part of the picture in reality. I think we need to take a broader and deeper view, sport is only a reflection of our society.
    In fact it would be criminal for the government to prioritise rugby above the urgent and life threatening challenges most of our young people face on a daily basis. As our society normalises, so will all forms of sport.

    Whether rugby remains as popular if we do move on and prosper as a society remains to be seen. I hope it does.

  • stormramp

    Well said Nick. Where are the days when sport was sport. Now its politics and players playing to get contracts overseas. I dont blame them. Like Snor de villiers said: in order to change people you have to change their mindset first. Meaning apartheid is very much alive. How can you say a country is democratic if the 51% is black owned. Who monitors that. So if a player gets an overseas contract i dont blame him because theres no gaurantee being offered to him

  • Brent Saunders

    As is evident from the diverse solutions being offered up here, there is no one clear path to sporting growth and success. What is abundantly clear however is that in developing sport (I say sport so as to include players, coaches, enthusiasts, parents and sponsors) emphasis MUST be placed on schools first. Ensuring that teachers are recruited to be that first seed of sports development in a child is paramount. Once that child is inspired a whole social network is activated. His/her parent becomes a supporter if they weren’t already, generating resources becomes a focus of the family ( they want to have good facilities at the school their children attend) and so a whole chain of developmental events is kicked off.

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