Lifeline for breeding ground of black rugby

For too long, Eastern Cape clubs have been a stepping stone up and out for many players from the province.

The N2 highway from Kokstad to Port Elizabeth is littered with reminders of systemic impoverishment in the Eastern Cape. Not even the highs of the rolling hills through Mt Ayliff, Mt Frere, Qumbu, Mthatha, Dutywa, Butterworth, or the stretch between East London and Port Alfred, offer any reprieve from the reality of the crumbs the people of the region live on. 

But somehow, in all the doom and gloom, there is a richness that surpasses even the most bloated bank accounts of the surrounding provinces, which often reap the fruits of a commodity in which Eastern Cape has an immeasurable bounty – rugby talent. The countless creaky wooden rugby poles that stick out of sandy patches across the province bear testament to it being the bedrock of black rugby in South Africa.

The province is home to some of the former model C schools with a rich rugby history, as well as some impoverished black schools that have played their part in unearthing some sparkling rugby gems, the latest being Springbok wing Makazole Mapimpi who went to Jim Mvabaza Senior Secondary School in King William’s Town. 

Why has the province that produced the first black African Springbok in Kaya Malotana, Springbok World Cup winners such as Mark Andrews and Akona Ndungane, and many others who have contributed to many successful Springbok teams of the past and present not been able to grow into a giant of South African rugby?

Despite often being the first port of call for the region’s talent, the Border and Eastern Province unions are on their knees. Why are two of the most dysfunctional unions in the country here? 

Club rugby has gone backwards

“We, as the Eastern Cape, must admit that we are not going to be as rich as the other provinces at this moment,” says the Eastern Cape Sports Confederation’s Phumelele Hlati. 

“Instead of looking for ice cream, which is top-class rugby, we should go back to our daily bread, which is club rugby. It is the foundation of our success all these years. We have produced players because of club rugby. Club rugby has gone backwards because we have concentrated on … professional rugby, which has not given us the return we were looking for. We have neglected who we are and the basis of our success in the past. If we can develop a competitive and well packaged club rugby system, it will automatically filter up to the professional ranks in three or four years’ time and the players will contract themselves because they will be good enough.”

Hlati believes the lack of communication and structure from school level to the professional ranks exacerbates the already dire situation in which the Border Rugby Union finds itself.

Border rugby is overwhelmed by the talent and the numbers. There are more than 400 clubs, but is there a plan to harness and streamline what the clubs are doing?

“I don’t believe that we have a structured approach as to how we are going to harness the talent we keep on producing, especially from schools. There is no synergy between the unions and the four Varsity Shield universities and what they are doing. There is no synergy between what the schools are doing and the union wants. There is not enough communication between the two. It will be pure luck if we get any players who are good enough to graduate to the top level. We are not helping ourselves with the way we are doing things. Eastern Province is the same and Border is the same.

The schools are doing their thing, the unions are doing their thing and the clubs are left floundering,” says Hlati, who has coached at both school and club rugby level in the Border region.

Lack of organisation

“Both unions are not really using the intellectual resources that we have. We have three communities in our rugby and I don’t think that all of them are fully involved. You will find that in one province there is one that is dominating and the other one is totally indifferent to what is happening because they don’t feel welcome.

Border was strong because there was a white element, an African element and a coloured element, and they were strong. Eastern Province was the same thing. I think Border rugby is overwhelmed by the talent and the numbers. There are more than 400 clubs, but is there a plan to harness and streamline what the clubs are doing?

All the various leagues are doing their own thing. It is not organised properly and they are not moving towards the same goal. They are all just playing.”

Former Springbok flank Thando Manana says the Eastern Cape has always been a province that produces players for other unions, and the fact that there is seemingly an unending pipeline of players continues to fuel the exodus.

Manana also began his career playing club rugby in Port Elizabeth, but played most of his senior rugby in Kimberley for Griquas, in Pretoria for the Bulls, and abroad in Ireland.

“It has become the norm that we are just the breeding ground. We will forever be the factory for unearthing these boys. It is in our genes, it is part of our history for more than a hundred years, and what motivates Eastern Cape players is the reference of yesteryear players that have made a contribution,” says Manana, who is now an administrator at Motherwell Rugby Club near Port Elizabeth.

“We are lacking [administratively] … This is one area where we used to be dominant. We had a black president [Silas Nkanunu], chief executive [Songezo Nayo] and managing director [Mveleli Ncula]. We let it go from there … We have young and intolerant leaders who want to do the job and know that it is not for them but for future generations,” says Manana. 

The former Springbok is in the running to become general manager at the Eastern Province Rugby Union. Unlike Border, Eastern Province has recently received a lifeline from an equity partner, a black-owned consortium led by businessman Loyiso Dotwana. Talks are at an advanced stage to revive the academy at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University.

Manana believes the new partners will help breathe life, and funds, back into the union, and is hopeful younger people will be encouraged to get involved in administration.

“They will make the business decisions, but they will involve rugby people to run rugby,” says Manana. “For far too long, administration has been seen as a job to go to retire in and we must change that. It is because of that thinking that we saw our unions sink, because the people in those positions either didn’t care or were just there to spend their old age.”  

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