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?