Talent poachers lurk at schools

2014-06-02 00:00

UNION agents and KZN school scouts are lurking on the sidelines of schoolboy rugby matches, armed with “incentives” and cunning strategies to poach talented teenagers away from the schools that groomed them.

In a sometimes bitter “cold war” between high schools, the practice of poaching star schoolboys is continuing unabated, despite a “charter” last November in which the country’s top 24 state rugby schools agreed to “reject approaching and offering money to boys to allow or encourage them to switch schools”.

Last week, a premier Cape Town rugby school, Sacs, severed “a century of relations” with King Edward VII School (KES) in Johannesburg after the latter allegedly used an agent to poach a Sacs player on the sidelines of a rugby match.

Last year, Westville Boys’ and Glenwood High School suspended relations when the latter allegedly fielded an overage player.

However, many parents and headmasters insist that only world-class coaching at schools like Maritzburg College, Westville, DHS or Glenwood could give talented youngsters from less resourced schools the chance at lucrative careers — while also achieving the country’s race transformation target for the Springboks.

Sharks under-19 scrumhalf Cameron Wright was poached by Hilton College from Westville Boys’ in 2012, but a Westville sports official said these transfers were less controversial as there was “no agreement between private schools and state schools”.

This week, most headmasters interviewed — including East London’s Hudson Park High’s Roy Hewett — accused Glenwood High of benefiting most from the inter-high school transfers to bolster its formidable first XV team.

Glenwood principal Trevor Kershaw admitted to The Witness that incentives were offered to boys at rival schools. “If there is a high school boy that we think would benefit long term from coming to Glenwood, we will talk to him and see what we can do to make it happen. Sometimes it works, sometimes it does not.”

Responding to allegations that Glenwood fielded boys recruited from another school in its game against Maritzburg College last week, Kershaw said, “There may well be some boys joining us in the third term so that they can be integrated into the system before next year begins but that has not been finalised as yet. They are certainly not here now.”

He said one new boy — who played one rugby festival for Glenwood before returning to his original school in the Western Cape — had left “because he was homesick”.

Glenwood has recently outmanoeuvred Hudson Park High in gaining some of the best talent from that school’s “feeder school”, Hudson Park Primary.

However, Hewett — whose East London school recently lost four key players to poaching — said he respected Kershaw and Glenwood because “they are at least open about their transfers, and are not underhanded or devious like some other schools in KZN”.

The agreed ethical practice is for high schools to offer scholarships and bursaries to talented primary school pupils, and for unions, like the Sharks Academy, to offer bursaries for high school players when they leave. As a result, under-13 trials matches feature scouts from top schools on the sidelines, while “representatives” from the Sharks attend under-16 high school festivals, according to Etienne Fynn, MD of the Sharks Academy.

Hewett said the “unacceptable practice” was offering incentives to boys and their parents to switch schools in grades 10, 11 and 12.

Last year, Westville Boys’ High gained two Hudson Park rugby stars, on a free boarding and tuition deal.

Nestor Pierides, Westville’s director of Sport, denied any poaching had taken place, saying “those boys approached us”.

“We are known for developing our own talent,” said Pierides.

But Hewett alleged that the transfer had been engineered by “agents from the union”.

Fynn said, “We identify talent. But the Sharks Academy is not involved with high school transfers at present, and no contracts are offered to boys under 18.”

Two sports directors claimed that the Sacs incident last month was a “case study” in how top schools recruit talent: answering a “shopping list” request from a local Super rugby franchise, the schools allegedly use agents to approach players and dazzle their parents; and then warn parents to tell the original school that the move was their own idea.

A spokesperson for Sacs said the headmaster, attending a match at St Stithians in Joburg, had overheard an agent discussing offers for the boy on his cell phone. Despite being warned to stay away from Sacs players, the spokesperson said that the man had “hung around” and later “intercepted” the player. The school alleged the KES headmaster, Dave Lovatt, had then backtracked on an undertaking not to poach the boy. Lovatt denied any approach, and said the boy’s mother had decided on the move herself.

V Nestor Pierides

Westville’s director of Sport

“We are known for developing our own talent.”

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