Over the last few weeks, the Sunday Tribune has looked at the pressures associated with schoolboy rugby. We have also looked at how a worryingly increasing number of pupils are turning to supplements and drugs to get an edge.
This week, in the final instalment of our look into the business of schoolboy rugby, we look at the prime reason why this pastime has almost become a profession for some.
It has become a business, with an ever-growing list of former players opting to take up positions at schools rather than unions. Naas Botha, for instance, has joined the coaching ranks at Waterkloof, while in Durban, former players Ryan Strudwick and Brad McLeod-Henderson have joined Maritzburg College and Hilton College respectively.
Having been headhunted, their salaries are rumoured to go far beyond the packages of a normal school teacher, some going beyond the R1-million mark.
There are also allegations of exceptional schoolboys being paid massive salaries while they are still in school by academies looking to secure their services for the following year.
“From our side, we definitely don’t pay scholars,” Hans Scriba, the Sharks Academy managing director, told the Sunday Tribune.
“There is absolutely no truth to that. And besides, a boy under the age of 18 cannot sign a contract,” he added.
He did admit that scouts earmark potential stars continually, and the cream of the crop has already been handed places half-way through their matric year.
“It’s the same thing that happens with universities attracting bright students. Within five or six months, the pupils know where they are going the following year. If you don’t do that, you get left behind very quickly, because all the other unions have their scouts at the various festivals and national weeks too.”
Scriba explained that the Sharks Academy gets as many as 600 applications every year, but they can only take on about 100 first year students.
“Many of those pay out of their own pocket to be here, and they have to be studying either a degree, diploma or a certificate while they are with us.”
Several Sharks players have gone this route, Scriba added, with Keegan Daniel, Lwazi Mvovo, Craig Burden and Marcell Coetzee all taking the long route to the paid ranks.
The reality, of course, is that not many of the players will make it to the very top. By the second year, the Sharks initial intake goes down to about 65 boys, and then down to 35-40 by the third year.
The earmarking for talent starts as far back as primary school.
“That’s why there is so much pressure on some of these kids, sadly,” lamented Durban Preparatory High School (DPHS) headmaster Richard Neave this week.
With school fees at some of the major schools in the country pushing beyond R50 000 a year – in some cases, considerably more – a full scholarship can save parents a fortune over five years.
“The boys that stand out are put in a heck of a position, because the best schools in the country come in for them, and want these youngsters to join them. That’s when you need parents to be strong, and put the needs of their children first.”
As a principle, DPHS don’t allow high schools to have marketing days on their premises. They leave it to interested parents to decide if they want to go to open days at the various high schools.
“The problem is the division that it creates. These boys create bonds at primary school, and then suddenly big decisions have to be made at a crucial stage in their development, where they are suddenly taken away from friends.”
Neave added that the problem with identifying talent at that age is the uncertainty of growth patterns. It is a gamble.
“Picking talented skills players in cricket or hockey is one thing, because if they stand out at that age, they will always be competitive. But in rugby, which is dominated by size, some of the bigger kids in schools are often caught up to in size later in their school lives, and that creates a new pressure to maintain bursaries.”
But that hasn’t stopped the frenzy. The Tribune tried to contact several of the leading KZN schools this week with regards to their scholarship programmes.
Of those that replied, Kearsney College maintained that they do not offer rugby-specific scholarships.
“Balance is very important to Kearsney, and as such we offer a limited number of scholarships for Music, Academics and Sport,” Rob Carpenter, the marketing director, explained.
“We look at what recipients can offer the school as a whole,” he added.
Glenwood High School, who were rated as one of the top schools in the country last year, also responded, with headmaster Trevor Kershaw explaining that roughly two thirds of their scholarships were for sport.
“We give 100 percent bursaries for sport, academics and cultural, and the rugby specific ones probably amount to 15-20 percent of the total sports bursary allocation. The scholarships all fall under our ‘non-recoverable’ part of the budget, which caters for fee remissions as well as scholarships.”
Glenwood has recently been embroiled in a bitter struggle over the eligibility of Marne Coetzee, an SA Schools prop, who moved from Waterkloof to finish his schooling in Natal. Some schools have objected to his inclusion in the Glenwood side, and refused to honour their fixtures if Coetzee plays.
“It’s unfortunate that a young boy has been subjected to this scrutiny,” Glenwood coach Sean Erasmus said.
“He wasn’t poached from Waterkloof, but it was a family decision to relocate back to Durban. His father even put out a press release explaining this, but we’ve had a situation where a few schools have decided to hype this up. I know that his family is actually seeking legal advice on the matter,” Erasmus added.
Inevitably, the highly competitive nature of schoolboy rugby has led to a heightened sense of awareness in what rivals are doing. The poaching of players is frowned upon, and there are even agreements in place for schools not to lure matured boys to their schools for the sole benefit of a successful first XV.
This superiority has been built into most schools’ marketing strategies, although one has to question the merit.
The hype associated with schoolboy rugby leads to heated debates on websites, and also detaches players from their peers at an early age. It has created animosity where there were once healthy rivalries. And, after all this, what guarantees are there for school prodigies?
“Look, being a standout player at high school doesn’t guarantee. It may get you a foot in the door, with a bursary, but you have to re-prove yourself when you join an academy. It’s like someone who gets eight A’s in matric. They still have to go and work hard to get a degree,” Scriba concluded.
Former Sharks player Jeremy Thomson, who also played SA Schools in 1986, also had a warning for those with ambitions to be the next Pat Lambie.
“At the end of the day, only two of us from that SA Schools side played first-class rugby. You have got to question the wisdom of making rugby the be-all and end-all at such a young age. There has to be a balance, and I think players and parents should be asking themselves: what’s left in my life if I take away rugby?” – Sunday Tribune