Grey day for junior rugby

The positive results of the new SA U18 High Performance Programme have been marred by the recent schoolboy rugby controversy.

The programme, designed to help condition and develop elite, young South African players at an early stage, was a late addition to the rugby calender. The team seemed to benefit from their two-week programme, recording victories over France (39-3 and 39-6) and a mixed Namibia side (93-10) which included U19 and U21 players.

However, it clashed with major school derbies, namely Paul Roos vs Grey Bloem, Bishops vs Rondebosch and Monument vs Waterkloof. These matches were the last school fixtures of the season, and are the last opportunity for departing matriculants to turn out for their school sides.

Grey Bloem’s four-year unbeaten streak was ended by the 9-3 loss to Paul Roos a fortnight ago. Seven regular players were missing because of their commitments to the SA U18 team. A week before the loss, a full-strength Grey beat second-ranked Glenwood 62-3.

Grey head coach Dries van der Wal lamented the ‘poor planning’ of the High Performance Programme, considering these major school matches were already scheduled at the beginning of the year.

‘We had a fantastic season and we are very unhappy because we set out our fixtures before those plans,’ he told keo.co.za. ‘Then we received a fax that our players must report [to the SA U18 squad]. We asked if at least half of the players could be released for the Paul Roos game, but they said no.

‘They said if the boys did not report there, they would be left out of the squad. But they released one of the Bishops players [Nizaam Carr made a match-saving tackle in that fixture] and two guys at Waterkloof, which is unfair. Why make exceptions? Why do we have double standards?

‘With all due respect, I’m not saying we would definitely beat Paul Roos if we had our full team, but without seven regulars, how can you expect a side to win?’

Although Van der Wal expressed his frustrations, he stressed that he didn’t disagree with the ideals of the High Performance Programme. He just couldn’t understand the planning of it all.

‘The U16 High Performance Programme is scheduled for the September holidays, which is fine. I think that’s great. I’m not against Saru’s principles and I agree it will be very good for our boys. But the timing for the U18s was very poor.

‘Our boys have been away from school for almost two weeks. They arrived back on Sunday, and start mock exams on Tuesday. How do they expect them to perform well academically?

‘It was also unfair for the players to make that decision. Obviously they would’ve liked to play for the SA U18s, but on the other hand that was their last match for Grey College, which they would’ve loved.

‘I’m sure if they had the opportunity, they would’ve played for their school, but they also knew their rugby careers were on the line.’

Manager of High Performance for junior rugby at Saru Herman Masilma said this step had to be taken for the development at U18 level in South Africa, and that there was no other possible time in the year to fit in international opposition.

‘For this programme to be possible, we had to accommodate the foreign teams,’ he said. ‘We didn’t pay a cent for them to come down and we couldn’t confirm these dates at any earlier time. Even at a late stage, Argentina withdrew this year because they had a swine-flu moratorium, which banned them from travelling. We wanted to start a relationship with these U18 teams and it is extremely difficult to get them at any other time.

‘Next year, England, Argentina, Italy and Wales have already confirmed to tour South Africa. We also hope Australia and New Zealand will be available.’

When asked about Grey College’s situation, Masilma said that Saru would try to avoid such scheduling clashes in future.

‘What do you expect me to do? We can do nothing. Saru will try to prevent this situation,’ he said.

‘By next week, we will confirm the time slots for next year’s plans. The school will be aware of these dates. I understand the situation the schools were in, but we were in our own situation. But next year, definitely, we will accommodate them [the schools] so they can plan accordingly.’

Meanwhile, Grey College scrumhalf Pieter Rademan, who captained the SA U18s in the first match against France, believed the programme was hugely beneficial despite the unfortunate scheduling clashes.

‘I’m not ready yet [for the mock exams], but I have to work hard now [Rademan hopes to study medicine at the University of Free State]. It’s going to be tough. Luckily I’m academically strong, but the guys who are not will struggle,’ he said.

‘But I’m looking forward to the future now. If I didn’t join the SA U18 squad, I wouldn’t of had that head start to a professional rugby career. These are the type of structures England have, and that was makes their junior rugby so good.

‘I am very sad that Grey Bloem lost to Paul Roos because our unbeaten record has been broken. It was my dream to be unbeaten, but at the end of the day I had to make the decision, and playing for the SA U18s was more important.

‘I had to make a choice, and that was my decision. I have to face these kind of things in life.’

By Gareth Duncan