The day Rugby Union turned professional everything changed, this beast we all are complaining about is one of our own creation, the values, beliefs, ethos all went down the drain for most involved in the game.
Rugby became another beast, it was fuelled by competition, pride and desire to be the best at any cost. The camaraderie, brotherhood still form some of the pillars of the game but the lure of maximising financial gain, getting the most years out your body and to a less extent winning as many titles as you can has gotten greater. Very few institutions could sustain their reputation by mere pride and history. Teams have become money cows and these institutions have become mere businesses. From the best Unions to the smallest.
In recent weeks there has been a resurface of not an old story, but a story that goes back as far as a decade. Schools poaching players and the abuse of substances. Education takes a back seat in some schools to accommodate the rugby frenzy and hype. Rugby has become an occupation and you will realise most boys and some girls growing up now; want to be professional players. Rugby is a source of pride for most schools and it is what put some schools on the map.
Some schools have taken it so far as to start recruitment programmes and scouting systems not just in South Africa but as far as their neighbouring countries. Some schools have taken the safer options as they approach talented youngsters from Zimbabwe from as young as 13 years old. One head not only mentioned how this solves some of the transformation aims the school is looking to achieve but also allows them to keep their pact with other schools intact.
In most cases poaching has improved the lives of many players who have received opportunities they would have never got. What is rather troubling is poaching from an institution that has already invested in a youngster already. Is there a moral line crossed here?
The contracting processes are starting at ages as young as 15, case in mind being the current incumbent for the Springboks Handre Pollard. With youngsters being earmarked as the next Springbok it is the young players’ driving force towards getting bigger and stronger to get a contract early. The size of players is paramount and one of the most important aspect of players in South Africa. When players neglect the right nutritional pathway and use of healthy supplements but instead are left having to resort to substance abuse.
Will it ever stop? Never. The patience has gone out the window as players have become bigger, faster and more athletic. Even the props have begun to look like loose forwards. When youngsters are told by their coaches to get bigger, and to get faster they have neglected the first rule of having talent- working hard. Now I will not condone the use of steroids. It’s unacceptable and should never be an option. Bans need to be extended from mere 6 months to two years to make a statement.
Now, when a boy is surrounded by fellow players and team mates that are urging him to use or forget about making a side peer; pressure kicks in. Coaches are insisting on the size of players and there is an even more telling example in that some players are written off and labelled too small to play the game at Test level. Case in mind; Cheslin Kolbe, Juan de Jongh deemed too small for their position. Gio Aplon (despite playing a few games; his lack of size meant he was never backed 100%) is another who battled. Factors like this contribute to how players prepare for a life as professionals or players.
We have stopped to fully appreciate skill and have decided to blind ourselves in believing size beats all. The reality is when all else fails and physicality is matched; skill wins. School boys are now subjected to live matches on TV. The level of exposure is so high, reputations and sponsors’ millions are on the table. Sponsors back winners and what counts now is winning. Players need to perform and be in the best shape of their lives. Contracts are awarded to bigger, stronger, faster youngsters. Players that if they aren’t genetically gifted will resort to plan A or B.
Schools are complaining about ‘possible’ breaches in agreements not to poach from each other. Is that like when Eddie Jones agreed to coach the Stormers? Contracts are easily broken now. People’s words have been reduced to hearsay.
Can poaching ever be stopped? I doubt it. It will remain a problem as long as a player will be offered a better opportunity than his current setting. If you find yourself at a school ranked 6th on the Top schools list and the number 1 school offers you a scholarship are you going to decline? Are you going to rely on sentiment that they developed you and gave you the big break? This level of emotion has left most players. They will jump into any door they feel will enhance their best chance to becoming a Springbok one day. Just like a player will fight to go to the best Union in the country. The logic is the same.
Any player will be off to the best place for them whether it is morally right or wrong. It is the beast that lives now and continues to grow. This is the business world and schools are the next biggest entities after Unions. Whatever the case. It’s a long way off till any of this can stop and there needs to be a stage SARU decide to be part of the school system. Most parents may need to be informed that young players too may be tested at any stage for drug taking. Gone are the days when players are playing in the provinces they grew up. It’s all down to who has the strongest brand and most money. They get the best players now.
Brendan Venter once said “…young players are sadly seen as commodities and a survival of the fittest policy comes into effect. The moment such an environment is cultivated, competition for places becomes so stringent that individual ambition takes precedence over team camaraderie.”
By: Benedict Chanakira