Player poaching continues to plague South African schools rugby, writes MARIETTE ADAMS.
A new year and a new cast, but the same old story. With schoolboy rugby in South Africa becoming more professional and competitive over the past decade, high-ranking schools have adopted a win-at-all-costs policy and it is leading to increasing animosity.
Just before the start of the 2016 season, player poaching reared its ugly head again with schools resorting to aggressive recruitment in a quest to fill their quota of black players. In the latest incident, King Edward VII School (KES) underhandedly acquired the services of two of Parktown Boys’ High School’s most talented players during the December holiday break without following the correct procedures (24 schools, including KES and Parktown, signed a ‘No poaching’ charter agreement in 2013).
Twins Kennedy and Leon Mpeku attended Parktown on full scholarships from Grade 8 after being earmarked by the school’s director of sport Remo Murabito and represented the Golden Lions at last year’s U16 Grant Khomo Week.
When reports surfaced in September that they were being headhunted in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, Murabito sent an email to all schools with the boys’ information and reminded everyone of the charter, which vetoes the pilfering practice. The twins’ father also reassured Parktown’s sports delegation that his children would not switch allegiances. On 12 January, it was brought to the school’s attention that the twins had moved into KES’s boarding facility.
‘We were not informed of this, neither were proper transfer procedures followed,’ Parktown confirmed in a statement. ‘We contacted the KES headmaster who insisted there was nothing wrong with the boys being at his school.’
KES, who have been accused of this practice before, strongly denied any transgression in the saga, with headmaster David Lovatt saying at the time: ‘We refute any claim that we poached these boys. The two schools remain in communication, with our wish to resolve the present impasse.’
It is here where it becomes interesting. KES and several other schools have appointed OneSport, a sports agency, to help develop their rugby academies. SA Rugby magazine has learned it was Wynand Moolman, the company’s managing director, who put together the Mpeku twins’ move by bypassing Parktown and approaching the parents with a substantial offer – which included tuition, boarding fees, clothing and pocket money – in August 2015. But because Moolman is not an accredited agent with SA Rugby, it was KES’s responsibility to honour the charter they had signed and inform Parktown about their plan to enrol the brothers.
This then begs the question: Do schools pay agencies to strengthen their rugby structures and develop the academies while turning a blind eye to how it has been done to avoid accountability? Tinus Diedericks, chairman of the Golden Lions High Schools’ Rugby Association, says schools and agencies are both to blame.
‘I put this growing tendency [of poaching] at the door of ambitious and free-spending schools, hard-nosed mediators and idealistic parents who are convinced their children can make a living as professional sportsmen,’ he tells SA Rugby magazine.
With money the driving factor in these dealings, provincial unions also tend to get involved, especially the inland ones. Unions identify talented kids, those from cash-strapped communities in particular, and then provide top schools with large amounts of money to aid the transfers, while also paying for the pupils’ tuition, boarding fees, medical expenses and plane tickets.
The Blue Bulls, in partnership with Waterkloof and Menlopark, caused a stir when they went ahead and recruited centre Duncan Matthews from Hoërskool Swartland in Malmesbury in 2012 and fullback Andell Loubser from HTS Drostdy in Worcester in 2013 after the schools had already invested a great deal in the boys’ development.
Dirk Marais, the headmaster at Swartland, said at the time: ‘[Former Bulls coach] Heyneke Meyer came to Malmesbury to persuade Duncan to move to Pretoria. I spent over R35,000 to aid Duncan’s development.’
There are many more examples of this practice and high-ranking officials within the schools system agree it can’t be stopped.
‘Sport has become a major part of schools’ marketing strategies and as long as it is run as a business, the holistic development of the child and the importance of competing in an ethical manner will not be prioritised,’ says Noel Ingle, chairman of the SA High Schools Rugby Association.
‘Many schools throughout the country have codes of conduct in place that govern their interschool participation. This peer control is the only realistic method to regulate unethical recruiting. However, these codes of conduct are not legally binding but rather a gentleman’s agreement, which some schools choose to ignore because they are not enforceable.
‘Parents have the right to move their children from one school to another and with their consent there is nothing any external body can do to thwart the guilty parties’ poaching endeavours.’
After Parktown decided to cut sporting ties with KES, Murabito told SA Rugby magazine: ‘I made a point to inform Mr Mpeku that I invested more time and energy in his sons than I did in my own and that this is not the way to show gratitude.
‘There has always been a staunch but respected rivalry between the two schools and with one swift move, they broke down our relationship.’
With all the hype surrounding schoolboy rugby in South Africa and more money being involved, poaching is set to escalate. Schools are therefore looking to protect their investments by adding a clause to the initial scholarship documents, forbidding pupils to negotiate and/or move to another school while they are still active bursars. However, the jury is still out on whether this will keep the dark forces away.
‘I doubt we’ll ever be able to stop the rot,’ says Diedericks. ‘This problem is going to persist, it’s just a matter of reducing the number of incidents.’
OTHER POACHING INCIDENTS
– SACS cut sporting ties with KES in 2014 after one of its top rugby players, Lwazi Monakali, was poached by the Joburg school. The two schools have since patched things up.
– Stedman Gans, a former headboy at Hoërskool Waterkloof in Pretoria, turned down a three-year scholarship worth more than R500 000 from a private school in Joburg in 2013. Gans said Waterkloof offered to pay half his school fees from Grade 10 to matric after he declined the private school’s offer.
– A single-medium Afrikaans school in the Western Cape lost a promising 16-year-old rugby player at the beginning of the year to Paarl Gym. The boy had been guaranteed a place in his former school’s 1st XV. When approached by the Sunday Times, Paarl Gym headmaster Eddie Bateman refused to reveal whether the boy had been granted a full scholarship but confirmed he had been attending classes there since the beginning of the year.
– A Grade 11 pupil from Hoërskool Louis Trichardt in Limpopo was lured to a Durban school after being offered a full scholarship.
– In Port Elizabeth, six boys who should have enrolled at Alexander Road High in Grade 8 this year accepted scholarships from another school.
Read SA Rugby magazine’s follow-up story on schoolboy poaching in the June 2016 issue, on sale 23 May