SA’s junior talent drying up?

Dan Retief

It is claimed that sport mimics life and it has to be said that Rassie Erasmus’ entrée to the Springbok coaching job is rather like Cyril Ramaphosa’s “New Dawn” for the country.

Many see a bright, new age dawning but an equal amount are as pessimistic as ever about the state of Springbok rugby.

On the upside, the two come-from-behind victories over England were marvellous, but they were bookended by miserable performances against Wales in Washington DC and England at Newlands.

Rassie did a lot to buoy the optimists, especially with the way he grasped the transformation nettle, but for the cynics there was still too much wrong to begin believing a great regeneration had begun.

Chief among those was the dismal showing by the Junior Springboks at the World Rugby Under-20 Championship in France.

SARU’s PR machine tried hard, as it should, to put some gloss on a narrow loss to England in the semi-finals, and the fact that the Baby Boks hit back to beat their New Zealand counterparts for the bronze medal, but overall the expedition was disappointing.

These young players are the next generation of Springboks and all the faults of the last two abysmal years (P25 W11 D2 L12) were evident. In spite of a thorough build-up, the youngsters appeared out of condition, lacking in nous and skills, as opposed to physical aggressiveness, and apprehensive as to how they wanted to play.

Just as with their seniors, it was only when stung into desperation that they showed glimpses of what they might be capable of.

The Junior Boks have not won their tournament since 2012 and the worry is that the defects are also evident in national schools teams.

This would indicate that the maladies one sees in national teams are systemic – that the structure of South African rugby is not geared to producing a sufficient number of perfectly-rounded players possessing the mental and physical abilities to be the best over a sustained period of time.

Could it be that South Africa’s much-vaunted schoolboy nursery is not all it is cracked up to be?

Recent outcomes would indicate this to be the case. SA rugby has long been aware that a small portion of “rugby schools” produce most of our Springboks, but the problem is that the type of player emerging from this intense cauldron is consistently being shown up to be lacking in the qualities needed.

It is an incontestable fact that the advent of schools festivals, the televised Premier schools matches and a keenly-watched ranking system has seen a shift to a certain type of player to collectively make up a certain type of team.

The mind-set is that bigger is better and, allied to a good goal-kicker, the aim is to bludgeon opponents into submission.

Top schools set great store by their position on the ladder and winning far exceeds any notion of playing the game for fun.

The upshot is players whose skills are lacking, who are not required to think and who are used to being physically dominant… until they come up against opponents who are just as big, just as angry, just as fierce, but possessing more skills.

Nick Mallett, when he was the Bok coach (1997 to 2000) once did an interview with me in which he stated that “South Africa must get over the myth that we are bigger and stronger than the rest.”

It is alarming that this attitude still exists. For many boys in the top schools, the schoolboy experience is so exalted, their own status so idolised, their abilities so overblown that they can’t cope when they reach the hurly-burly of senior rugby and run into unawed opponents.

Another great flaw is clearly the selection process. An indicator is the low percentage of schoolboy internationals and Under-20s who reach full Springbok status, while SA Rugby has never committed, for instance, that the Under-20s coach is destined to be the next national coach.

An undeniable example of the benefits of long-term planning is Jake White winning the World Cup in 2007 with the bulk of the team coming from his Under 20s, plus the seniors who were with him for the four-year journey.

A recent investigation by a British journalist into what makes New Zealand supreme concluded that the great separator is skill – i.e. the accuracy and repetitiveness of all the diverse factors that go into making a winning team.

Of course, we possess wonderfully talented players who will soon again be on display when the Craven Week is staged at Paarl Boys High, but hopefully the key “selector” will be Rassie Erasmus singling out those who he feels might be of use to him in two or three years’ time; individuals with superior skills rather than those riding on the wave of a big, strong team.

The likes of Handré Pollard, Malcolm Marx, Warrick Gelant, the Du Preez brothers Jean-Luc and Dan, RG Snyman, Sibusiso Nkosi, Curwin Bosch and Ivan van Zyl are recent “Baby Bok” graduates, but for the Springboks to be great again we need more.

- Dan Retief

Let's chat

  • Nick

    ‘It is alarming that this attitude still exists. For many boys in the top schools, the schoolboy experience is so exalted, their own status so idolised, their abilities so overblown that they can’t cope when they reach the hurly-burly of senior rugby and run into unawed opponents.’

    So, so true. Thousands of kids and parents so up themselves and entitled about their own ability and blown all out of proportion by a sector of the education system that encourages what Dan describes here. The pool from which players are drawn get’s smaller and smaller. Almost All of it happens in the private/boys school sector. The system is becoming a weakness and not a strength.

    Look at Bok teams from 25 years back or so, and you will still see players that did not need to go to a big private school to get somewhere. Statistically players nowadays are drawn from fewer and fewer elite schools. This is the opposite of what transformation and access to the game should be achieving. Access to rugby should be broader, not narrower.

    Time to stop running rugby at school and overworking teachers and employing ‘directors of sport’. The onnies all over the country have done the development job for SAFU for free for years.
    Grow the junior game at club level. It will revitalise clubs and rugby in general.

  • Vic Harris

    i have never rated Ellton J! he has never had BMT in internationals and is there on local form and the right colour.

    • Zulekha Kunene

      What does this have to do with the above article?

    • Heinrich

      Vic, you make as much sense as a turd-flavoured lollipop. Reflect on the article please.

      Dan, I also come from one of these “rugby schools”. It is quite true what you are saying, but the problem is perhaps rooted even deeper. Once too much money got involved and every school got a gym and supplement sponsorships, that was already the beginning of the end. Schools now have broadcast deals for their matches, more people rock up to a Paarl derby than to a Stormers game. Schools Rugby IS the new varsity rugby in terms of sponsorship attractiveness and Varsity Cup is the new Club Championship. It is sad, but it is true. Where there is money to be made, it distorts the system on which it actually depends for survival.

      • John Comyn

        I also try to watch as much school rugby as I can down here in the Western Cape. I am not entirely in agreement with Dan although I have huge respect for him as a rugby journo. I think there are some pretty good skilled youngsters this year playing school rugby. Yes the boys are big but so are the AB and England youngsters. Skills are coachable regardless of size. To say the enjoyment is being coached out the game is simply not true. Not what I’m seeing anyway! The boys love it at all age group levels be it in the a, b, or c team.What is wrong with sponsorship and a more professional approach to the game? BTW I went to a talk by Gary Kirsten at my youngsters school and he seems to agree with Dan and yourself.His argument is parents are setting expectations to high. Bottom line is very few make make it.

  • Zulekha Kunene

    It is also time the unions look for talent outside the elite pool like the Lions do. Last week at the SuperSport Challenge I was almost in tears when I saw a player from Northcliff High coming off the bench. I had long seen talented players from Co-Ed schools go unnoticed. It’s sad that some players get chosen purely because they go to a private/boys school. It’s actually not sad but rather a shame and unprofessional and we’re seeing the effects at U20 and senior level. Heck even at Super Rugby level. We’ve only ever had one team ever win it since it became professional.
    It’s time we look for talent and not the crest on your rugby jersey. It’s time the selection process was fair at craven week level and not have the elite schools only participate at the final round instead of start at the beginning like others. That already tells the players that they don’t have to work hard for the next level.

    • John Comyn

      It’s mostly because government schools can’t afford the facilities and pay good coaches. That said I know every effort is being made to bring young black players through the system here in the Western Cape. Scouts from the rugby academy are our there looking for these guys. The private schools are also giving black guys scholarships. There are also a few guys from government schools who have made it. Good examples are De Allende (Milnerton high) and Etzebeth (Bellville high)

  • Nick

    John. I think there is a hell of a lot wrong with the professionalisation of school rugby. Good coaching I’m all for.

  • Barry Smith

    We also need to be a bit realistic with our expectations! Though we have not won the cup for a few years, we have consitantly been in the top 3, so it is not all doom and gloom!
    Quality of coaching and selection are also huge contributors! If the scouts and selectors are doing a proper job, then we would not be seeing players coming from a selected few schools.
    As is the case with the senior sides, much of the negativity sits within the Administration. The players do not select themselves, yet they cop most of the criticism

  • Kropotkin

    I agree. I think special emphasis is needed on the caliber of our top level coaches (Super RUGBY, Currie Cup, Varsity and SRC) because its seldom that a player actually IMPROVES their skill set in local rugby, whereas look at Willie le Roux, Duane Vermeulen and to less of an extent Faf de Klerk.

    Let the schools pump their kids with supplements, a good layer of coaches should be enough to mine and polish the skills that exist regardless.

    Rassie has a big job to do

  • Adam

    A fair question that needs to be asked then is: are the BEST players actually being selected at Junior Bok level? If a large number of “baby-boks” are not making the cut at senior level, and/or end up getting leapfrogged by guys who didn’t make the junior team, then the writing is clearly on the wall. With no “real money” involved at junior level, it is easy enough to force through transformation, but it will obviously have a telling effect on the scoreboard at the end of the day \m/

  • Peter Williams

    I went to watch a schools match recently and went home bitterly disappointed just after half time. Schools rugby should be about running the ball with gay abandon to entertain parents. Instead it now mimics the Springbok crash, crash, crash, oh look, no one noticed a two man overlap on the wing because we are too busy playing to a pattern. The result is no skills. Who teaches a youngster to beat a player man on man these days? My rugby watching days are sadly over. I now watch the five minute highlights of matches on YouTube to see the best moments. But sit through a whole game? No thanks.

  • Dean

    It’s not the talent or players that we are lacking, but the infrastructure and professionalism. We need more emphasis on developing coaches and gameplans. NZ rugby is excellent at sharing information with each other and bringing guys from overseas back to contribute. SA rugby writes off former coaches like Mallett, Alan Solomons, Jake White, PDV etc. These guys can still contribute, whether it’s at administration level, junior level or higher up. We are under false pretenses that talent is enough to win trophies. It’s not, every country has talented players, we have more than most. However, we should focus on nurturing that talent and doing what is best for our rugby as a whole. Limited finances and resources is a problem. Focus on making the game truly professional in SA and have a proper strength vs strength system. We cast the net too wide at the higher levels. Less is more.

  • Sticky Wickets

    Not that we dont have enough talent. A lot of the people in charge of identifying and developing said talent is not the right people for the job. Ive seen it first hand.. especially in high school, most coaches fail to recognize long-term talent.. instead they opt for the right here right now option.. most coaches struggle to recognize well rounded players…. especially the diamonds in the rough

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