Men among boys

GARETH DUNCAN, writing in SA Rugby magazine, investigated the KZN over-age scandal that rocked the national schools scene.

CLICK HERE FOR MORE SCHOOLBOY DERBY NEWS

There was just over a week to go before the annual derby between Glenwood and Durban High School (DHS) when reports emerged that two high-profile schoolboys had been found to be overage, with one being 22 years old.

Glenwood captain and wing Siyabonga Tom and DHS fullback Mbembe Payi were said to be the guilty parties, which was confirmed when they didn’t feature in the Green Machine’s 34-9 home victory over DHS on 26 May.

A provincial investigation ensued, headed by KZN High Schools Rugby Association boss Noel Ingle, and six more boys from the U16 and U18 provincial trial teams were found to be overage. They were withdrawn from their respective squads.

Noel extended the investigation to expose the adults who had also been involved.

‘We wanted to find out who the guilty parties were,’ he says. ‘The schools are not the issue. The players are accountable to some extent, but it’s the scouts and agents who have probably played a big role in organising fake identity documents. However, we couldn’t find solid evidence to prove this.’

This scandal has shocked those involved in South African schools rugby. Payi and Tom were respected figures in KZN, having represented the U18 Craven Week team in Kimberley last year, while Tom was selected for the SA Schools squad and started in the 21-14 win over France U18 in Port Elizabeth.

Tom was also picked for the SA U18 Sevens team to compete at the 2011 Commonwealth Youth Games in the Isle of Man. I was the media manager for Team SA and was told that Tom had to be withdrawn as he didn’t possess a passport or an ID to qualify for a UK visa. The sevens coaches and management believed this was due to a lack of initiative from the player and his parents. It wasn’t known that Tom’s birth certificate – the only document he had to prove he was born in 1994 – was fake.

Glenwood 1st XV and KZN U18 Craven Week coach Sean Erasmus says the truth only emerged this year when the provincial players were being registered through Saru.

‘The women who were in charge of our registering said something didn’t match in Siyabonga’s form, and that it had to do with his ID number,’ explains Erasmus. ‘But we sent the form through to Saru anyway, hoping that the issue could be sorted out. Their guys found the same problem and they said Siyabonga was overage.

‘I was shocked,’ Erasmus continues. ‘This was a player I had grown so close to over the past couple of years. He was more than just a player, he was like family. He had lunch in my home on most Sundays.

‘When the news broke, Siyabonga went missing. He sent me an SMS, saying: “Hi coach. Sorry I couldn’t give you my side of the story and say goodbye. But everything will be revealed when the time is right. Send my love to everyone.”

‘I tried calling the number, but it didn’t work. He’s been missing ever since.’

At the time of writing, it was believed that Tom and Payi had returned home to the Eastern Cape, where they were once recruited as disadvantaged youngsters with raw talent.

This development plan has been used by many top South African schools for years, and Erasmus feels it shouldn’t be frowned upon because of this episode.

‘These boys from the Eastern Cape get an opportunity to obtain a good education and to play a game they love at higher levels. It was just unfortunate that this had to happen. The other schoolboys who have come from the Eastern Cape have been found to be the legal age.’

Noel believes the overage saga is a nationwide problem – ‘It would be unfair to say this is only an issue in KZN’ – and Saru registration officer Andrew Louwrens agrees.

Louwrens has been in charge of provincial age-group registrations for the past seven years and has come across many cases concerning overage players.

‘You had to see some of the application forms when I first started this process,’ says Louwrens. ‘It was obvious that some of the ID documents had been tampered with. The worst case I’ve seen was a 22-year-old selected for an U16 Grant Khomo Week team! There were also boys trying to enter with ID numbers that were tracked back to females.

‘The situation has improved over the years, but you get some players who try their luck. And they get quite ridiculous. One year, I rejected one player’s application but he still showed up for the competition. I told him and his parents that he wasn’t going to be allowed to play. After the argument, his father tried to bribe me.’

Louwrens says Saru has established a new application system to improve things.

‘The main issue we have with registration is that a player only needs to attach a certified copy of his birth certificate or an ID. But this doesn’t mean the application is legit … it could still be a certified copy of a fake document. It’s so easy to buy a fake ID in cities like Bhisho.

‘So now we are getting the schools and parents involved by including them in the process. The headmaster and parents need to sign that their student or son is the correct age and all his details are accurate. They can then be held accountable. It’s not the ultimate solution, but this is one of the first steps to finding one.’

South African Schools Rugby Association (Sasra) acting chairman Thys Bezuidenhout hopes this matter will be sorted out effectively at the board’s annual general meeting in October.

‘This will definitely be at the top of our agenda,’ he says. ‘It’s disappointing because legal players are being denied opportunities. You will always find a loophole in any registration system, but hopefully the new process will start stamping out the registration of overage players.’

Bezuidenhout adds there are currently no formal punishment protocols.

‘We hope to have some drawn up soon. These issues are similar to corruption and have to be seen in the same serious light. Bans should be issued to players found guilty. And we will deal with those players who have gone missing when they re-emerge.’

Saru head of schools Nico Serfontein says agents will also be punished if they are found to be involved in overage cases: ‘We have a list of all the South African agents who are allowed to represent our national players. If any of them have a hand in organising fake documents, their licences will be revoked.

‘I doubt agents will put their careers on the line for schoolboys. Parents also need to come on board as agents are only allowed to represent players from the age of 18.’

This is positive news from the national unions, but action needs to be taken as soon as possible.

At the end of June, there was a registration issue with the Golden Lions U18 Academy Week squad.

‘The player’s ID says he was born in 1994, but his birth certificate says he was born in 1993,’ explains Lions manager of community rugby Pieter Visser. ‘We have decided not to follow this up at home affairs and have withdrawn him from the team instead.’

This could be a home affairs mistake, but it could also be another case of cheating. If it is the latter, hopefully it will be one of the last.

Follow Gareth on Twitter
Follow SA Rugby magazine on Twitter