Duane Heath

Rugby's green and Grey zone

2004-07-09 07:44

Cape Town - In Bloemfontein last month, just hours before Jake White's bold young Boks gave South African rugby back its future, I was taking a tentative walk down memory lane.

I attended Grey College, the country's number one rugby school, from 1979 to 1984. It was during this time that my earliest memories of oval balls and trylines were formed.

In rugby season we'd huddle under the old cold concrete stand, and watch our first team heroes, guys like Pieter Muller, Heinrich Fuls, and the late Hansie Cronje (a great rugby player before he turned to cricket), breathe fire on frosty mornings. But at the end of my Std 4 year, my dad was transferred and we moved back to Durban. It took me 20 years to return.

Fittingly, I suppose, it was rugby that brought me back.

The morning of June 12, 2004 was bright and cold when I walked through the school gates at Grey College, hoping to catch a schools match or two before the Test against Ireland at the nearby stadium. "Is the first team playing here today?" I asked a teacher. "No, they're not," he replied, "But we've got Free State Schools playing against the Griffons in a friendly. Don't worry, if you wanted to see Grey in action you will. There are 13 of them in the starting lineup and another two on the bench."

The guy wasn't lying, either. An internet search coughed up the following report: "There are 15 players from the great Grey College in the Free State team to play at the Craven Week in Nelspruit starting on July 12. Last year there were also 15. Five of those players from 2003 are back again this year - lock Gerhard Human, the son of the great Pote Human of Eastern Province, now coaching in the Free State, flanker Regardt Strauss, who played SA Schools last year and SA Under-19 this year, left wing Pieter van Zyl, centre Herman Pretorius and right wing Renaldo du Preez."

Nothing new

Here's the side and the team's breakdown, for interest sake:

15 Phillip Snyman (Grey College), 14 Renaldo du Preez (Grey College), 13 Herman Pretorius (Grey College), 12 JW Jonker (Grey College), 11 Pieter van Zyl (Grey College), 10 Frans Steyn (Grey College), 9 Donald Stevens (Grey College), 8 Deon Stegmann (Grey College), 7 Heinrich Brussouw (Grey College), 6 Regardt Strauss (Grey College), 5 Ruan Pretorius (Grey College), 4 Pote Human (Grey College), 3 Stephan Pitchers (University of the Free State Under-18), 2 Hereu Liebenberg (Grey College), 1 Frans Labuschagne (Sand du Plessis)

Replacements: 16 Kudu Alexander (Grey College), 17 Shane Coetzee (Warriors RFC), 18 Wesley Daniels (President Steyn), 19 Moketshi Motshameng (Grey College), 20 Anwar Beukes (Sentraal Universiteit van Tegnologie), 21 Elgrado Tobias (Louis Botha), 22 Relston Jansen (Fichardtpark).

I guess, on the one hand, you have to feel sorry for the two poor Grey sods who couldn't crack the nod to play alongside their buddies in the starting XV. But it's nothing new. Free State Schools has been Grey College in disguise for as long as anyone can remember. You know the school has had a poor season when it can only get ten of its team to Craven Week.

Producing excellent rugby players

It's all very impressive, Grey's list of provincial and Springbok players it has produced. But are the province's other schoolboys not getting a raw deal here? Could it really be possible that, year after year, the best players from across the entire province, just happen to go to the same school?

Perhaps so. One certainly can't dispute Grey's strength on the field. And one just has to go to school there, or spend a morning walking around the place, to see how the combination of top-class facilities, dedicated staff and a rich history can consistently produce excellent rugby players.

But my concern is this: year after year in the Free State, hundreds of good schoolboy players who don't attend Grey College don't end up going to Craven Week. What becomes of them after they leave? How many are still playing five years after matriculating, at the ripe old age of 22 or 23, the age at which many young players are only starting to bloom? How many potential Springboks, not only in the Free State but across the country, are slipping through the net because they don't have that VIP pass into pro rugby that a Craven Week cap still provides?

There can be no doubt that South Africa's top rugby schools like Grey, Affies, Paarl Gym and others are ensuring that the production line of young talent never stops. In many ways, these schools are what makes South African rugby strong. But what about those players who don't attend the big schools? Who's looking after them? Who's encouraging them to carry on and never give up?

Too much politics

Next week's Craven Week in Nelspruit is a highlight for any schoolboy player who is lucky enough to attend. It's also an opportunity of a lifetime to be noticed, because all the provincial coaches will be there, with chequebooks flapping in back pockets.

But don't believe for a moment that all the best schoolboys in the country will be there. At this level of the game, there is simply too much politics, too much "I'll choose your school's flanker if you choose my school's flyhalf" for this to be the case.

South African rugby relies primarily on the big schools providing the bulk of its future professional players. Through sheer numbers, the small schools and the late bloomers can be ignored. But by doing so, just what gems are we missing out on?

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