Opportunity calls?

GARETH DUNCAN, writing in SA Rugby magazine, gives Grey College a chance to respond to recent poaching allegations.

It’s the Monday morning after the 2010 Currie Cup final and Grey College’s assembly commences. Headmaster Johan Volsteedt addresses the school and announces that eight Grey College old boys have been included in the 30-man Springbok touring squad.

‘Frans Steyn, CJ van der Linde, Flip van der Merwe, Bismarck du Plessis, Jannie du Plessis, Ruan Pienaar, Adriaan Strauss and Coenie Oosthuizen,’ Volsteedt reads out proudly, followed by a huge cheer from the boys.

Later that afternoon, I find myself in Volsteedt’s company and he tells me: ‘That number has increased to nine. Burger’s out of the Bok tour with a rib injury and has been replaced by another one of our old boys, Deon Stegmann. Let me be a bit windgat for a second. How many schools in the country, or even the world, can say they have contributed nine former students to a national sports squad?’

This season, Grey College were again the best rugby school in the country. Their 1st XV was undefeated – beating other top sides like Paul Roos (41-29), Glenwood (19-6), Affies (23-6) and Paarl Gym (23-12) – and had six SA Schools and seven SA U18 High Performance representatives, the most in the country.

While the Bloemfontein-based school continues to produce top rugby players year after year, some have questioned their methods. In the ‘Prepared to Poach’ article published in the October issue of SA Rugby magazine, Grey College was said to be the ‘main culprit’ of poaching at schoolboy level. The writer pointed out that seven boys had arrived at the school after Grade 8 and gone on to play 1st XV rugby this year, and also mentioned Marcel van der Merwe, the South Africa U20 prop who arrived at Grey College in his matric year in 2009.

Other schools have also accused Grey College of poaching their players. Some boys have claimed they were offered bursaries to transfer to Bloemfontein, while others believe that ‘poached’ Grey College players do not have to pay school fees. Volsteedt and Grey College head of rugby Dries van der Wal refute this.

‘We do not buy players or offer bursaries,’ says Volsteedt. ‘Some of our old boys do offer to pay the fees of talented pupils who can’t afford to come here, but it’s not only rugby boys and there are only a few examples of these cases. If we’re winning games every week, why do we need to go out and buy more players?

‘We also want our students to have a strong sense of Grey tradition, to be proud of the school and to play their hearts out for the team because they love the school. You can only get that if a boy is here for a number of years.’

Van der Wal adds: ‘Poaching is when a school goes up to a player, asks him to come to the school and offers him a bursary or money to win him over. We do market our school but we do not poach players.’

Market?

‘My role as head of rugby is to ensure Grey College rugby remains strong,’ says Van der Wal. ‘We have approached players at the U13 Craven Week and U16 Grant Khomo Week and given them a letter – signed by me – that invites them to apply at our school. But these players apply like any other student who wants to come to Grey College. They don’t get any special treatment.

‘We don’t persist after the initial approach. In fact, we don’t even take their contact details. If we don’t get a reply from the boys we approach, we accept that they’re not interested.

‘I don’t know where these bursary claims come from. There are no sports bursaries at Grey College. Bursary forms don’t even exist, so it’s strange that boys claim they received them.’

The letter approach, which is sometimes attached with an application form, may appear to be devious and unethical but Van der Wal says it is an appropriate method of scouting.

‘I know of schools that actually go out and buy players. We don’t do that. It’s a player’s right to go to the school of his choice. If the letter interests a boy and he wants to come to Grey College, he should be given the chance to apply.

‘It also allows us to scout for talented players of colour. There is a lack of them in the Bloemfontein area so by going to the U13 and U16 provincial weeks, we can find appropriate candidates.’

Volsteedt admits, though, that Grey PE students were approached by Grey College at the U16 Grant Khomo Week.

‘We make sure we don’t approach boys from schools we play against regularly, but a young teacher has made that mistake and now we have been accused of poaching,’ he says. ‘The teacher approached those players as EP players, not Grey PE students. As a result, we will no longer scout at the Grant Khomo Week. We do not want to give people reason to label us as poachers.’

Van der Wal adds: ‘We will only be scouting at the U13 Craven Week now, but it doesn’t mean we won’t accept boys after Grade 9. If a boy submits a good application, we won’t turn him away.’

Jan Serfontein, who arrived at Grey College from Grey PE in Grade 10 in 2009, elaborates on the Grey PE incident.

‘I heard about it and I know the two players who claimed to get bursary forms,’ he says. ‘But they were confused. They thought the forms were for a bursary, but they were just normal application forms.’

Of the seven late arrivals who played for Grey Bloem’s 1st XV this year, only one does not pay his own school fees. Wing Ruwellyn Isbel, who arrived in Bloemfontein after impressing at an U16 schools tournament at Paarl Gymnasium in 2008, receives funding from a Grey old boy, the father of Isbel’s 1st XV team-mate William Small-Smith.

‘There was no way my mother could afford to send me to Grey, so I was delighted to get the opportunity to attend Grey College,’ says Isbel, whose father passed away when he was younger. ‘I want to establish a rugby career and they can help me do that.

‘It’s strange that Gill [College, Isbel’s former school] 1st XV coach Eddie Simmons said that I left because of a “moerse bursary’’. I didn’t even play in the 1st XV and he knew nothing about the move. I left for a better opportunity.’

According to Grey Bloem, this opportunity is the reason for the influx of junior talent to the school and those who accuse it of poaching fail to take its rugby structures and facilities into account.

First XV preparation starts shortly after the end of a season in the fourth term, where trials are held and a provisional squad is formed.

There are six members on the coaching staff – forwards coach Ingo Machts, backline coach Roelf Meyer, defence and skills coach Hein Vosloo, conditioning coach Michiel Badenhorst, head of rugby and team manager Van der Wal and former London Irish and Saracens fullback Michael Horak, who’s a consultant.

The school has eight rugby fields and a gym, which is run by four conditioning coaches. Sheryll Calder, the former Boks visual coach, also has an office at the gym and PVM supplements are made available to the boys.

If a player gets injured, proper rehabilitation is provided.

The players who arrived late at Grey College (after Grade 10) say they did so because of these and other benefits.

‘My parents moved to Bloemfontein as my father’s business transferred here and my mother got a post at Eunice, a nearby girls school,’ says Serfontein. ‘I guess I could’ve stayed at Grey PE as a boarder, but I wanted to go to Grey Bloem.

‘I want to measure myself against the best and I can only do that at Grey College. If I stayed at Grey PE, I would have to play for EP at Craven Week if selected and their junior rugby isn’t taken seriously. But at Grey College, I can play for Free State, which is a bigger union.’

The late arrivals insist they aren’t given an easy ride into the 1st XV.

‘When I arrived here, I played for the U16C team in Grade 10 and then for the 3rd XV in Grade 11,’ says scrumhalf Kevin Luiters. ‘I came here as a “nobody’’ and had to work hard to earn a spot in the 1st XV.’

In the case of Van der Merwe, former Grey College head boy Robert Ebersohn talks about meeting the prop at the Cape Town airport.

‘I didn’t know him, I was travelling with the Cheetahs while he returned from Craven Week with the WP team. He told me he was too old to play Craven Week in his matric year and he wanted to move to Grey College to experience life in Bloem as he had received a junior contract from Free State.

‘I told him about Joubert Horn, who arrived at Grey in my matric year. He was also too old  for Craven Week and moved to Bloem. He did well but I told Marcel it was his decision.’

Grey Bloem’s late arrivals

JAN SERFONTEIN
Arrival: Grade 10 (2009) from Grey PE.
Position: Centre/wing.
Reason for move: ‘My parents moved to Bloem, so I applied at Grey College and got accepted. I could’ve stayed at Grey PE as a boarder but I want to measure myself against the best.’

NEETHLING FOUCHÉ
Arrival: Grade 10 (2009) from Hoërskool Rustenburg.
Position: Tighthead prop.
Reason for move: ‘It was my choice to come here, I wasn’t even approached. I wanted to take my rugby seriously. In order to do that, I had to move to a bigger school in a strong union.’

NICOLAAS IMMELMAN
Arrival: Grade 11 (2010) from Hoërskool Duineveld.
Position: Flank.
Reason for move: ‘I was approached at the U16 Grant Khomo Week while playing for Griquas last year. I wanted to come here because I liked what I saw and there were better opportunities for me at Grey College.’

NIELL JORDAAN
Arrival: Grade 11 (2009) from Hoërskool Ermelo.
Position: No 8.
Reason for move: ‘My family moved to Wesselsbron, near Bloem. I didn’t want to leave Ermelo, but when the opportunity to go to Grey came up, I was interested.’

RUWELLYN ISBEL
Arrival: Grade 10 (2008) from Gill College.
Position: Wing.
Reason for move: ‘I want to establish a rugby career and Grey can help me do that. I wouldn’t have gotten the same rugby opportunities at Gill.’

KEVIN LUITERS
Arrival: Grade 10 (2008) from Selborne College.
Position: Scrumhalf.
Reason for move: ‘I had a fallout with my coach at Selborne College after he dropped me for non-rugby reasons. I believe the grudge had something to do with my uncle being Allister Coetzee – the coach seemed to be jealous of what Coetzee had achieved with the Boks. After playing against Grey College that year, I knew I would develop into a better player there.’

TYRON SCHULTZ
Arrival: Grade 9 (2007) from Selborne College.
Position: Flank.
Reason for move: ‘I wanted to go to Grey College initially but my parents thought the fees would be too high. After finding out that the fees were affordable, I decided I wanted to leave Selborne for Grey.’