TALKING POINT: SA Cup crucial for unearthing rural talent

rugby19 March 2024 05:51| © SuperSport
By:Gavin Rich
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During a recent stay at a backpackers on what was once known as the Transkei Wild Coast, I was reminded of what many rugby coaches and former players who have been exposed to the immense untapped raw potential of South Africa’s rural talent have told me.

It wasn’t a rugby match being played out on the bumpy field situated just beyond the fence in front of the safari tent I was staying at in Mdumbi, about 12 kilometres north along the coast from Coffee Bay, but rather a soccer competition. Apparently there’s one every Sunday, and the following Saturday there was another.

The passion which the local people both supported and participated in the event was noteworthy, but even more astounding was the skill on display from the youngsters who were playing. A French person who has watched a lot of the round ball game confirmed what I thought: There was some special talent on display.

But of course then came the question - does the talent in a place so far from the major centres in the country get tapped and will those young players get the recognition and the help and put on the pathway to bigger things that perhaps that talent demands?

It reminded me of a conversation I had with former Springbok prop Garry Pagel over lunch at the Pig and Whistle in Bathurst (near Port Alfred) in 2019. I was interviewing Garry for a book and we were discussing the vast rugby potential of the rural areas of the Eastern Cape. Garry had spent some time coaching in remote areas and was adamant not enough was being done to uplift the systems that were geared towards ensuring that gems were not missed. He was quite disillusioned.


Every year talented kids from the Eastern Cape are lured to KZN schools in particular, but the point was made by Pagel that often moving youngsters away from the area they grew up in is not ideal. Out of the top of the head the names Lukhanyo Am and Makazole Mapimpi spring out as players who were spotted and nurtured and then made it elsewhere, but I remember Mapimpi starting out at the Southern Kings. He played elsewhere after that, but he initially thrived at Border and then the Kings, meaning on his home patch.

The subject of the Eastern Cape being represented at franchise level is not often debated these days but it should be. Those that remember the Kings as a failed concept are forgetting their last season in Super Rugby. I was there the day they beat the Sharks at a boisterous Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, they also beat a couple of overseas teams and at the end of that season they beat the Bulls at Loftus.

When you drive through the Eastern Cape you realise what a vast area it is. If you are following the coastal route, the southern border with the Western Cape is just beyond Plettenberg Bay and the north-eastern border is at the Umtamvuna River near the KZN coastal town of Port Edward. Heading inland, the border with the Free State if you follow the N6 from East London to Bloemfontein is at the Orange River, just beyond Aliwal North.

Ah, mention of Aliwal North triggers another angle to this story - that is the area that double World Cup winner Frans Steyn hails from. It’s not that far from where Johan Goosen was born and spent his formative years - Burgersdorp. Back in the old days Burgersdorp was represented in rugby terms by the North Eastern Cape.

Which was the province that Os du Randt played his schoolboy rugby for. Du Randt was from Elliot, a town in the foothills of the Eastern Cape Drakensberg. And it just so happens that another member of that legendary 1995 Springbok World Cup winning team, Mark Andrews, was also from there. Mark went to school at Selborne College, but the family farm was just outside Elliot. His cousin Keith, also a Bok, grew up in Molteno, where his family ran the local hotel.

We could go on. AJ Venter was from Smithfield in the southern Free State, Stefan Terblanche never played for South Western Districts but he did spend his schooling years in Swellendam. We might hesitate to call Nelspruit a rural area these days but it is nonetheless a region that, had it been neglected by rugby, would have meant we’d have been of another double World Cup winner, Duane Vermeulen. How many good players from what were once known as the platteland unions just lose interest and slip through the net?


These days you can watch the stars play on television but there’s nothing quite like seeing them in the flesh. Keith Andrews told me that one of the big spurs to his rugby career as a schoolboy was going to watch North Eastern Cape (it was actually a NEC/Border combined team) play the 1976 All Blacks in East London.

Trying to list players from recent decades that had their first rugby stimulus in areas outside of the major rugby centres is dangerous because there are so many. But if you read the headline to this story, you know where this is going - the South African Cup, which kicks off on Human Rights Day, doesn’t completely solve the problem referred to by Pagel, but it does offer some aspiration to players and youngsters who live outside of the major centres.

It is not only rural areas that need to be tapped for resources. You wouldn’t refer to Kroonstad as rural (or at least I wouldn’t). That was the area where the legendary Andre Venter started his rugby career. He attended Hoerskool Kroonstad. Oh yes, there’s another Bok legend that springs to mind when I think of Venter - Andre Joubert. He was from Ladysmith, what used to be Northern Natal and they played in the old Sport Pienaar competition.

This could go on all day if you gave me an opening, but the point is that this is a country rich in sporting talent, and like was evidenced on that Sunday at Mdumbi in a different sport, that talent can be found in every nook and cranny and every remote, far flung corner. That the 10 provinces not represented in the Vodacom United Rugby Championship at franchise level have something to play for is crucially important and it will be interesting to see what gems are unearthed in the SA Cup.

As the Pumas’ Currie Cup winning coach Jimmy Stonehouse once said, it is part of the job of the coaches of that region to develop the talent that will later thrive at one of the URC franchises. It helps make South African rugby strong.