Why is rugby transformation failing?

Liz McGregor offers food for thought on one of the reasons standing in the way of transformation – food.

Article by Boertjie

FOREWORD: I’ve been reading Liz McGregor’s very recent book “Touch, Pause, Engage!” She took three years of research and travelled far and wide to report on the game from a woman’s perspective.
The book received enthusiastic reviews and I can recommend it. What follows here is my selected abbreviation of a few pages in which she sets out the problems faced in the Eastern Cape – the home of black rugby.

In the winter of 2010 I made a trip to the Eastern Cape. Dale College u.13 had beaten Bishops 54-0.

Given the huge discrepancies in resources between wealthy, independent Bishops and state-run Dale, this was a remarkable result. The question was: What happens to these boys?

Ex-Bishops boys can be found at every level of professional rugby, but there are only one or two Daleans. The vast majority just don’t make it beyond school. Given their obvious talent, why not?

I thought it was particularly intriguing in the light of the fact that Dale is in the Eastern Cape, the heartland of black rugby, the one province where rugby is more popular than football. (RW Note: The EC does not even have a team in the NSL A-league after Bay United was relegated.)

It is also the province from which the Bulls and the Sharks recruit many of their black players.

King William’s Town, home to Dale Junior and its big brother, had 30,000 white residents in 1980, now there are 4,500. Many of the villas are now owned by black people.

The acting principal of Dale Junior is a young white woman, Pat Thatcher. The colour of the boys has changed since 1994: it is now 90% black. There are 500 of them, and almost all of them play rugby. Two thirds of them come from single parent homes. A lot are brought up by their moms, and their coach is like a father to them.

Pat finds this an amazing tool for instilling discipline. “If we have any disciplinary problems, the most effective threat is to say: ‘We’ll tell your rugby coach.’ Parents do it as well: ‘We will take away your rugby.’ ”

Dale Senior is still run on the English public school lines. Their matric pass rate is 98%. Some 90% of the pupils are black. They struggle with their school fees of R3,500 a term. Only 40% goes back on holiday to two parents.


Racial transformation also had its financial impact. The old boys are mostly white. They don’t send their sons to Dale, don’t identify with its rugby teams nor do many contribute to its coffers – unlike in St. Johns, Bishops or the Afrikaans state schools like Affies, Paul Roos or Paarl Gim.

All Dale has is great natural rugby talent and passion.

I put my question to three coaches: “If Dale u.13 beat Bishops 54-0, why don’t they go on and dominate rugby like Bishops, Affies or Paarl Boys’ High?”

Simple, they said. They don’t get enough to eat.

Their daily diet is bread, three times a day. Their families are poor and they basically just eat starch: bread and some samp and beans, They get hardly any of the protein needed to build muscle, particularly at this crucial adolescent growth phase.

When they play the Afrikaans team, the guys are 10 kg heavier, which is big in rugby.

“The boys do an hour gym and two hours of rugby and then go home to a supper of starch, so it doesn’t assist their growth. We have great talent and flair, but to be successful, you’ve go to be ranked in the top 20 schools every year. If they had nutritional support for our boys, we could do that,” one of the coaches summed it up.

“The boys’ only real hope is to get noticed by the Bulls or the Sharks and land a contract with them. That is every boy’s dream, but only one or two a year are chosen.”


What they would really like to do is to get the promising players into the hostel because there they are fed a balanced diet, but that means an additional R14,000 each year.

Dale also runs a Border zonal u.15 day, which means they also scout the village schools. To get the talented ones to Dale will cost at least R28,000 annually per boy.

And now that the Border Rugby Union – that pathetic excuse for a provincial union – has finally collpased, why is no one else stepping into the breach?
There is so much talk about developing the black talent that everyone knows is abundant in the Eastern Cape and they can’t even put it together to make sure thes boys get enough to eat!

All those crucial, elusive elements are in place at Dale: talent, passion, infrastructure. All they need is food, which takes a bit of organisation, perhaps corporate sponsorship or development funding.

So simple and so fundamental.

RW POST SCRIPT: Poor diet also brought the fast bowler Mfuneko Ngam’s career to an end – His frame is just to ‘brittle’ to endure the stresses.
Boland has over the last decade produced several outstanding players. I am told
that coloured players have an advantage when it comes to diet, and that most of these players were enrolled and fed well in Boland House, the union’s academy, at a youngish age.

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33 comments for “Why is rugby transformation failing?

  1. Profile photo of Morné
    September 8, 2011 at 6:46 pm

    This is an excellent read, and actually so sad…

  2. Profile photo of Boertjie
    September 8, 2011 at 6:59 pm

    Reply to Morné @ 6:46 pm:

    Jip, it calls for an in-depth journalist
    to follow this up and expose the system
    and the reasons.
    Maybe the politicians can also find some
    food for thought, instead of just blaming

    Some of my thoughts:
    Where are the black
    millionaires and businesses?
    Where is Cheeky Watson?

  3. Profile photo of Morné
    September 8, 2011 at 7:09 pm

    Reply to Boertjie @ 6:59 pm:

    Boertjie it is sad and infuriating that a basic thing such as food and feeding our kids are arguably the biggest contributing factor to why we are failing as a country.

    Surely we are better than this?

    Surely government (as you mentioned) and SA Rugby would or should have identified this as the primary reason we fail?

    Why install mobile gyms or academies costing millions when all our kids need is proper food and proper parental or adult guidance?

    Because it scores more political points? Paints a nice picture in the media? Or the one (needed) actually needs you to get your hands dirty.


  4. Profile photo of Kat
    September 8, 2011 at 7:30 pm

    This is a problem that affects our society as a whole … every aspect of it, not just rugby. Some are more equal than others. We make laws to try to create a fair society, but laws don’t feed our youth proper diets. Get this tight and a lot of other things will come right. The basics of today are the same basics from yesterday.

  5. Profile photo of Kat
    September 8, 2011 at 7:33 pm

    “right” not “tight” …. sorry … these damn touch-screen keyboards :D

  6. Profile photo of Morné
    September 8, 2011 at 7:40 pm

    Reply to Kat @ 7:30 pm:

    Indeed it is, but if we can isolate a national problem through a single medium like rugby surely it will have knock-on effects?

    Brand (as I) is a huge champion for the belief that rugby (or sport) is arguably the best vehicle to teach life skills, not just sports skills.

    It influences just about every aspect of life and being human.

    Human kind as a whole need to realise we need to invest in our elders (taking care of them) because they have so much intellectual property and life lessons to teach us, and our youth as they are the future.

    But I am going off the topic now.

  7. Profile photo of The Brand
    September 8, 2011 at 8:02 pm

    Boertjie – great read thanks !!!

    It is not only Blacks – who experience malnutrition, white kids the same.

    Even more sad for me is that white kids are full of shit and don’t eat this and that.
    I have know several youngster who simply ‘broke’ at senior levels because of poor/non-effective nutrition!!!

    HOW MUCH more when you DO NOT HAVE proper food to eat !!!

    I am convinced this is one of the biggest reasons why so many black kids are still competitive at U/20 level but disappear at senior levels.

  8. Profile photo of The Brand
    September 8, 2011 at 8:15 pm

    Morne – I am even more convinced than ever before – that one of the saddest aspects of sport and specifically sport at schools today is indeed the fact that it is utilized less and less to build character and instill life-skills.

    And in my experience the youngsters themselves are resisting it more than before and so their parents !!! The parents for reasons I have been unable to fathom believe THEIR kid IS going to play and make it, and make loads of money professionally !!!

  9. Profile photo of Boertjie
    September 8, 2011 at 8:16 pm

    Reply to Morné @ 7:40 pm:

    Interesting book this – gave me a lot of
    She also spent lots of time with Ikeys,
    Bulls and Stormers.

    Bulls especially seems to spend a lot of
    attention to also hone the life skills and
    get them to study for “life after rugby.”

    Lots of insight into people like Heyneke,
    Eloff, Anton van Zyl, Allister Coetzee,
    Fourie du Preez and others.

  10. Profile photo of DavidS
    September 8, 2011 at 8:31 pm

    Nothing new here…

    I have said this from the start

    I even see it with my domestic’s kids and even herself..

    I’ve had to train her especially to feed my kids decent food or they’d get pap for breakfast, bread for lunch and pap and bread for dinner.

  11. Profile photo of DavidS
    September 8, 2011 at 9:11 pm

    BTW Boertjie this is an outstanding piece of writing…

    Has already elicited a lot of discussion on Twitter…

  12. Profile photo of Boertjie
    September 8, 2011 at 9:16 pm

    Reply to DavidS Bok on his heart not his shoulder @ 9:11 pm:

    All credit goes to Liz McGregor.
    Soft cover, 273 pages. R180.

  13. Profile photo of Oranje Orakel
    September 8, 2011 at 10:07 pm

    Zip it is sad indEEd

    even saDDer that those who can make a diFFerence

    doesnt care….

  14. Profile photo of bryce_in_oz
    September 9, 2011 at 4:46 am

    Good read…

    This applies to the entire RSA not just sport… the public need to be educated on eating correctly… whether they can afford to or not…

    Protein doesn’t just come from meat… and many dirt cheap, sustainable vegetables have extremely high protein counts, Vit B’s, C’s etc etc not too mention be grown without much effort and next to nothing costs…

    But the uneducated sommer net buy a loaf of govt bread instead… because they don’t know better…

    Mass nutritional education the key…

  15. Profile photo of Mug Punters Organisation of South Africa
    September 9, 2011 at 5:58 am

    Logic and not emmotive populists politics spewed out by some of the racist scum masking as politicians. Made my day to see scumbagMcbride get 5 years.

    Diet is an issue of class and not race and clearly affects a developing body.

    I still believe private school boy mafia’s, like all countries, and agents, self belief are our biggest limitating factors in transition.

    I dont care if the whole team is non european as long as they play great rugby and have a win ratio over 71%.

    Watch out for Mbovane and Sithole as BOkke.

  16. Profile photo of Fred Pohl
    September 9, 2011 at 12:52 pm

    There were never any apartheid in the rest of Africa, but African countries are useless at rugby! Why are African countries(outside SA )so useless at the game, when they never had apartheid?

  17. Profile photo of Ollie
    September 9, 2011 at 12:54 pm

    Reply to Fred Pohl @ 12:52 pm:

    Because they play more soccer !?

  18. Profile photo of Boertjie
    September 9, 2011 at 12:55 pm

    Reply to Fred Pohl @ 12:52 pm:

    Easy – they had no example from
    the colonialists. Unlike most
    other things.

  19. Profile photo of JT_BOKBEFOK!
    September 9, 2011 at 1:08 pm

    Reply to Fred Pohl @ 12:52 pm:

    Hi Fred, welcome to RW. :Ollie:

  20. Profile photo of Deon
    September 9, 2011 at 1:10 pm

    And in the rest of the world the control freaks are legislating taxes on junk food. Why not just send it to the EC? In moderation that can be healthy.

  21. Profile photo of Boertjie
    September 9, 2011 at 1:16 pm

    Someone must convince the mieniestas
    that it starts at the bottom, not the

  22. Profile photo of DavidS
    September 9, 2011 at 1:42 pm

    Reply to Boertjie @ 1:16 pm:

    Cynical me says

    But the money is at the top and that is the ultimate goal…

  23. Profile photo of DavidS
    September 9, 2011 at 1:48 pm

    BTW Ollie

    Not true

    Ivory Coast

    All had strong rugby traditions prior to decolonization…

    What Fred is alluding to is that fact that the remainder of the African nations have not taken “ball in hand” so to speak… AND BUILT THEIR OWN RUGBY TRADITIONS… why should there be a reliance on previous colonial powers to do it for them…

    And in decolonized nations rugby quickly died as a competitive sport.

    For instance

    Namibia beat Ireland TWICE in 1991

    And lost JUST to Wales the same year

    Yet these days they are competitive against Uganda and Germany…

    In 1948 Rhodesia beat the All Blacks…

    These days they don’t even qualify for the World Cup… they are in fact not even competitive in Africa

  24. Profile photo of Ollie
    September 9, 2011 at 2:37 pm

    Reply to DavidS Bok on his heart not his shoulder @ 1:48 pm:

    During those days it was a high colonial influence that kept rugby going, but rugby requires more investment than football, from equipment and fields through to marketing. The interest to invest in that largely disappeared with colonialism.

    Then the media is far more likely to broadcast European and local soccer than rugby as that is what the masses want.

    20 years of that and you get what you have now.

  25. Profile photo of Rent-a-quota
    September 9, 2011 at 3:35 pm

    Greetings, all.
    A longtime lurker here, first-time poster; in fact, I registered specifically to post on this thread. It’s a rare opportunity to make a sensible contribution, given that I never played rugby, although – to be fair – I have become mildly fanatical, if not particularly well educated, about the game.
    I posted my wife a link to this thread because her company does a lot of well regarded under-the-radar work in school nutrition. Coincidentally, they are in the process of expanding their nutrition programme into the Eastern Cape, where they already fund similar projects outside of the school environment.
    Within the hour, her MD responded by telling her to set up a meeting with Pat Thatcher, talking sponsorship, etc etc…
    Things are happening. Slowly, but they’re happening.

  26. Profile photo of Ollie
    September 9, 2011 at 3:53 pm

    Reply to Rent-a-quota @ 3:35 pm:

    Hi, Rent-a-quota welcome to the site and thanks for the good news and heads up.

  27. Profile photo of The Brand
    September 9, 2011 at 3:58 pm

    Welcome Rent-a-quota !
    Great stuff !!!
    What an amazing turn of event – please keep us informed and updated !!!

  28. Profile photo of Boertjie
    September 9, 2011 at 4:00 pm

    Reply to Rent-a-quota @ 3:35 pm:

    GREAT! So RW is contributing in a small way.

    Stop being a lurker and become a poster –
    we need posters that are “well educated in
    the game” to make up for the rest.

    Seriously, we would like a follow-up on this
    Please forward me Pat Thatcher’s contact address
    once your wife has it.

  29. Profile photo of DavidS
    September 9, 2011 at 5:00 pm

    Welcome Renta Quota and thanks for the contribution.

    We look forward to hearing more from you and in particular on this project.

    Good luck!

  30. Profile photo of Duiwel
    September 9, 2011 at 5:12 pm

    Simply because you can’t teach
    any old baboon rugby.
    And geographicly we have more
    baboons than most.

  31. Profile photo of DavidS
    September 9, 2011 at 5:31 pm

    Reply to Duiwel @ 5:12 pm:

    In France?

    Soon you will have as many as us…

  32. Profile photo of Morné
    September 9, 2011 at 6:34 pm

    Reply to Rent-a-quota @ 3:35 pm:

    Welcome Bud, and thanks for your post.

    Its such a small world, a minute ago, we realised we actually know the author of this book, we have met her before and interacted with her through rugby very recently.

    RW has also been very privileged to build strong relationships with people who do actually care and give a shit.

    Your wife’s company sounds a lot like a NGO or NPO. If you want, email us (me directly) with information or a follow up on this – I believe if we put our minds to it, we might actually make a difference by pulling together some resources and calling in some long overdue favours! ;)

  33. Profile photo of Rent-a-quota
    September 9, 2011 at 11:08 pm

    Thanks for the warm welcome. Once you hear some of my views on rugby, I suspect the temperature may shift to something rather more extreme. Ironically, talking about heat, I am standing in the kitchen typing this.

    I’ll keep RW updated on the nutrition story.

    In the meantime, Morne, you have e-mail.


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