Player poaching in South African schools rugby continues despite measures put in place to prevent it. DYLAN JACK reports.
There seems to be no clear-cut answer on how to eradicate player poaching in South African schools rugby. Part of the issue surrounds the Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs), or headmasters’ agreements, that have been put in place to prevent poaching and whether they are still serving their purpose.
High schools in the country have become semi-professional in their approach to rugby, making the sport even more competitive. This almost guarantees animosity as some schools push the boundaries on their agreements.
SA Schools chairperson Noel Ingle, who has served as headmaster of Glenwood Preparatory since 2017 and previously as chair of the KwaZulu-Natal High Schools Association, has over 20 years of experience in high school sport. He believes poaching can be stopped, but only if schools honour their agreements, pointing to the apparent success of the code of conduct signed by KZN schools.
‘Poaching is preventable,’ Ingle tells SA Rugby magazine, ‘but we need to question the role parents and the schools are playing in it. Surely schools need to take the lead and keep the moral high ground?
‘KZN has a sophisticated system in place which, along with peer pressure, has helped reduce poaching. It’s more than a gentlemen’s agreement, it’s a signed code of conduct. In KZN, all fixtures are played as friendlies. Hopefully that reduces the results-driven attitude, which has negative connotations.’
This year, two of the country’s oldest schools, SACS and Wynberg, announced they would cut ties with Paarl Boys’ High after being impacted by the latter’s drive to become the best rugby school in the country. SACS and Wynberg each lost a Grade 8 student, now in Grade 9, to Boishaai between 2018 and 2019.
Part of the issue for both schools is that Boishaai appear to have contravened an MOU signed by 26 state boys schools. The MOU rejects poaching and approaching boys or their parents with offers or incentives to join a school. It further states that any application to change schools after a pupil has been enrolled needs to be discussed between the principals of the schools in advance.
According to Wynberg, the boy’s father gave no reason for his withdrawal from the school and attempts to communicate with Paarl Boys’ fell on deaf ears. Boishaai further intimated to Wynberg that they knew nothing about the boy and would not accept him.
Wynberg headmaster Jan de Waal says that while he had no intention of the saga ending up in the media, he felt the school had to act within its sports ethos regarding the reasons school sport is played.
‘The issue is not centred on the boy, who had improved academically and in his sport during his time at Wynberg, but rather the way in which the transfer took place, and the lack of communication by Paarl Boys’ High.’
This eventually led to Boishaai holding emergency meetings to repair its relationship with SACS and Wynberg.
The decision to cut rugby ties with Paarl Boys’ seems to be the furthest a school can go in terms of penalising another school for breaking an MOU.
‘It’s very difficult to prevent a child from registering for another school,’ Ingle says. ‘The Department of Education plays no role there and never has. I would be loathe to go down that route. We need to sort this out like gentlemen.
‘There is no legislation in place that, from a legal perspective, could allow something to be done. That’s why these agreements between schools in the same province are crucial. The agreements need to be extended to schools in different provinces too.’
There is also a grey area when it comes to giving schoolboys bursaries that will give them a better education – and a better chance of going on to play professional rugby – and poaching.
‘A kid has been developed and given all the opportunities at a school that has invested time, money and energy into that child,’ Ingle says. ‘If another school sweeps in and takes that kid in Grade 10, questions need to be asked.’
This grey area has been ruthlessly exploited, with Eastern Cape schools in particular being targeted. Dale 1st XV prop Okuhle Siyeni, who was on a bursary and played for Border at the U18 Academy Week last year, is now at Westville Boys’ High in KwaZulu-Natal. Responding to an enquiry about the move, Westville denied initiating it.
‘Ms Siyeni and her son presented a transfer form which indicated he had left Dale on 30 November 2018,’ says Westville admissions official Margery Campbell. ‘She indicated that she was called in by Dale College to be advised that the sport and recreation bursary had not been renewed for 2019.
‘The Westville admissions department attempted to query the circumstances of his withdrawal from Dale with numerous phone calls and then subsequently by email but received no response from Dale College.’
Dale 1st XV coach and director of rugby Grant Griffith, who handles the sports bursary programme at the school, insists Siyeni’s bursary would not have been cancelled.
‘Okuhle says he was at the Kearsney Easter Rugby Festival when one of the Sharks Craven Week coaches approached him and promised him he would be involved in the Sharks team set-up,’ says Griffith. ‘Border Schools had planned their scrum around him. We are not looking to fight, we just want to keep what we have got.’
The Siyeni case illustrates the grey area. With no academy in the Eastern Cape, Siyeni may be better served going to a school in KwaZulu-Natal and giving himself a chance of earning a place in the Sharks Academy.
By accepting Siyeni, Westville could argue it had given him a far better chance of making it as a professional rugby player.
However, if Siyeni was still on a bursary at Dale College and playing for Border, and was approached by a coach from another province, that could be considered poaching.
SA Rugby magazine also understands that three U16 boys from Queen’s College, who have all decided to stay at the Eastern Cape school, received offers to join Glenwood in KZN. One of the boys was already on a bursary, while the other two received bursaries from Queen’s, thanks to donations from a few old boys.
‘It puts us on the back foot,’ says 1st XV coach Pierre Jacobs. ‘We have got minimal feeder schools. We are two hours from East London and four hours from Port Elizabeth. We are really isolated, so that makes us reliant on our surrounding community and junior school to bring that talent through. When these kids play for Border and then we hear they have received an offer for a bursary, it is difficult. We don’t always have the funds to compete with the bigger city schools.’
Another reason Eastern Cape schools have been targeted is the enormous pressure schools are under to field representative teams. Famously known as the bedrock of black rugby, it is easy to see why big schools would turn to the Eastern Cape to boost their black numbers.
Former Springbok prop Robbie Kempson, who ran the EP Academy between 2011 and 2016 while it was still functioning, says schools are targeting the province’s young talent.
‘It has happened for a number of years. It’s unfortunate that it does, but sometimes it provides the kids with an opportunity as their families may come from very difficult backgrounds. It gives them the opportunity to go to decent schools without having to pay for it and in some cases the parents receive remuneration for their kids to go there. From an economic side you can understand it from the parents’ point of view.
‘One or two of the unions have got involved. From the outset it started with the Bulls poaching players in the Eastern Cape. Now the schools have become ruthless when it comes to taking players, sometimes with the intervention and assistance of the provincial unions.
‘For me, the really sad thing is you are taking a kid out of the social environment he has grown up in,’ Kempson adds. ‘Of those Eastern Cape kids getting poached, how many become high-level professionals who can provide for their families in the long term?’
Kempson says there is still no plan in place to keep boys in the Eastern Cape after the EP Academy collapsed when the new executive took over in 2017.
The situation in New Zealand rugby shows what can happen if poaching is allowed to continue unabated. An independent review conducted by NZ Rugby found that the number of boys playing rugby was decreasing at an alarming rate, in part due to the pooling of talent into rugby-focused schools, which led to uneven competition.
One of Wynberg’s major concerns is to keep up with the Boland schools of Paul Roos, Paarl Gimnasium and Boishaai, which have become the powerhouses of Western Cape schools rugby. So, if poaching does continue, South Africa could see more schools starting to stack talent, leading to fewer boys wanting to play the sport due to mismatches between schools.
‘If anything is going to turn parents and children away from rugby, it’s mismatches,’ Ingle says. ‘There are dominant schools and schools do go through phases and sometimes have very good teams. But that is a natural thing and stacking could see fewer schools playing rugby and staying competitive.’
– This article first appeared in the March 2019 issue of SA Rugby magazine.