Sport Watch

And, now our rugby is being captured

Grey reunion in France
Stolen players.jpg

While state capture is dominating South African news headlines, it just come to light how its rugby has been captured by European capital and market forces.

And, it is not just provincial- and national players that are being targeted. Whole schools, known for producing good rugby players, and events like the Craven Week tournament have become the hunting ground of potential future Springboks.

At least one, almost iconic, former Springbok hero from the 1995 World Cup-winning team, Joel Stransky, is very concerned about the “stealing” of young rugby talent by the European clubs.

How market forces are changing the game, with an international scramble for talent, and how promising schoolboy talent at, at least South African school can score a scholarship from a French club emerged last week in a column by Owen Slot in The Times newspaper in England.

Here is a shortened version of the column under the headline Montpellier ‘stealing’ South Africans:

So, there we were watching Montpellier against Exeter Chiefs on a sunny Sunday afternoon, trying to work out if there was any telepathic connection between Ruan Pienaar, the scrum half, and Francois Steyn, the inside centre. For Pienaar and Steyn are not just both South Africans, they went to the same school.

Pienaar got injured and went off early. Maybe, though, we would have seen more of this special synergy if two of Montpellier’s other South Africans, the Du Plessis brothers, Bismarck and Jannie, hadn’t been injured as well. In fact, all four went to the same school.

 As market forces increasingly influence the game, so too has the scramble to unearth the best talent. Indeed, by the next round of European matches, Jan Serfontein, a fifth Grey College alumnus, will have joined the squad from the Bulls, the Super Rugby side.

The good money is on there being a sixth by the end of the season. That would be Johan Goosen, the 25-year-old former Top 14 player of the year, who looks set to come out of his mysterious early retirement.

Grey College is a private school in Bloemfontein. It is highly reputed for the number of international sportsmen that it produces for South Africa. As a production line for Springboks, only one South African school, Paul Roos in Stellenbosch, has delivered more. Grey College would now appear to be a feeder school for Montpellier too.

Last month, this arrangement was formalised. Montpellier announced that Mohed Altrad, the billionaire club owner, was funding a scholarship scheme for a number of pupils at Grey. It will also install a French teacher.

French, by the way, is not on the curriculum at Grey, not regarded as a priority language that would be obviously useful to young South Africans. Except, of course, if they were going to pursue a career in France.

One need not be cynical to wonder what is happening here. As market forces increasingly influence the game, so too has the scramble to unearth the best talent.

The way to get it first is to get it young. That is why Clermont Auvergne have established an academy in Fiji; it is why you find French scouts at big South African schools events, such as the annual Craven Week; and it is why there are 19 Wales-qualified players at Hartpury College in Gloucestershire.

These are just anecdotal examples of why Fiji never field their best XV and about 400 South Africans are playing abroad. Great for the club game in Europe, perhaps. Great for the international game? I don’t think so.

Grey scholarship

How the Grey College scholarship programme plays out remains to be seen. If philanthropy were the ideal here, there are a thousand and one schools in underprivileged areas in South Africa more in of need of help than a historic Bloemfontein private school.

Wessel du Plessis, the school rugby coach, says that there is no obligation for Grey College to provide Montpellier with players. Indeed, the rules in France are being increasingly loaded against cheap, speculative imports.

However, Joel Stransky, the hero of the Springboks’ 1995 World Cup win, is in no doubt about what is going on. He described it on television as not so much a scholarship programme as “a stealership programme.”

“Our systems are weak; there is no passing of the baton. The result is the system is broken. The challenge is to keep them here.”

Battle to retain players

Yet everyone, of course, is trying to keep the best players. That is why Scotland announced that they were employing three scouts to work full-time in England looking for Anglo-Scots to play for Scotland. 

Last season, the WRU ran a Super 6 event at Cardiff Arms Park with six regional under-18 teams from across Wales — that’s six lots of 30-man squads, 180 players. “You looked up in the stands and there were all these scouts from England there,” recalls Geraint John, the WRU head of rugby.

Everyone accepts that there is going to be some traffic across the Severn, and who would begrudge a talented Welsh boy accepting a scholarship at an English public school? The concern in Wales is when they hear their boys being discouraged from playing Wales age-grade rugby by their English clubs and academies or missing out on the World Under-20 Championship as a result.

Of course, we see this same attempt to protect talent pools at a senior level. For different but related reasons, Wales last week put up barriers on their overseas based senior players. Australia and South Africa have done the same.

And, why hordes of Australians and South Africans are lost to their national sides. In England we used to squeal that we could not select Steffon Armitage – Australia and South Africa have that problem on an industrial scale.

Now into its third decade of professionalism, the same market forces that took Armitage to France are looking to shift the best young South Africans, Fijians and Welshmen before they have left school.

by Intelligence Bulletin Team

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