Pubescent tal­ent does not guar­an­tee later suc­cess

CityPress - - Sport - Dan Retief

The no­tion that you “have to catch ’em young” in sport is be­ing turned on its head when you look at the Spring­bok squad. The SA Rugby Union (Saru) has com­mit­ted to a pro­gramme of scout­ing for fu­ture stars from as young as 13 and the progress of those iden­ti­fied is plot­ted as they make their way through the age-group tour­na­ments un­til even­tu­ally they re­alise the Spring­bok dream.

It is a good ap­proach, which I’m sure can be cor­rob­o­rated by any num­ber of earnest sports physi­cians, yet the facts show nascent tal­ent is no guar­an­tee of later suc­cess. Take the Ju­nior Spring­boks side who won the IRB Ju­nior World Cup in 2012.

At the time, most of them would have been 20 and one would have ex­pected they would now be start­ing to make an im­pact in se­nior rugby.

Some have, no­tably Han­dré Pol­lard and Jan Ser­fontein, but the ma­jor­ity of these young “world beat­ers” seem to have lost their way as they have moved into the se­nior ranks and come up against the harsh re­al­ity that the “anointed few” sta­tus that en­veloped them as ju­niors has no place in a hard-bit­ten pro­fes­sional world.

Pol­lard played in that tour­na­ment as a school­boy and showed the cool head that would make him a Spring­bok (he played in his sec­ond test against Ar­gentina yes­ter­day) and Ser­fontein emerged as the player of the tour­na­ment.

The stocky cen­tre was hailed as “the next Danie Ger­ber”. But his de­ci­sion to sign for the Bulls, thereby sub­mit­ting to their re­stric­tive pat­tern, seems to have suf­fo­cated his nat­u­ral at­tributes. He’s now been turned him into a crash-baller rather than the cre­ator of tries his prom­ise had sug­gested.

Ser­fontein amaz­ingly al­ready has 12 caps but yes­ter­day he had to sit out at the start to make way for re­turn­ing cap­tain Jean de Vil­liers. That, too, is a re­al­ity young up-and­com­ers must deal with – in many in­stances, coaches pre­fer ex­pe­ri­ence to prom­ise and of­ten you have to bend the knee to longserv­ing se­niors or play­ers with rank.

Ser­fontein, Pol­lard and the un­for­tu­nately in­jured Pi­eter-Steph du Toit are the only play­ers among the 2012 world cham­pi­ons to have be­come Spring­boks.

For the rest, the con­ver­sion rate is not im­pres­sive. Ray­mond Ruhle, Kobus van Wyk, Paul Jor­daan, Paul Willemse, Steven Kit­shoff and, to a lesser ex­tent, Wil­liam Small-Smith, Wian Lieben­berg and Oliver Keb­ble have gained a foothold in se­nior rugby – quite a small num­ber out of a group of 31.

Many teenagers are dis­cour­aged by not be­ing spot­ted, but the flip side of the coin shows not only is the pol­icy of com­mit­ting to play­ers when they are very young flawed but the three Ds – de­sire, de­ter­mi­na­tion and ded­i­ca­tion – should never be dis­counted.

When the Baby Boks were win­ning their world ti­tle in 2012, Lodewyk de Jager was turn­ing out for North-West Univer­sity’s Un­der20 side. But he had size and heart and “lood” in his veins, and be­ing given a chance by the Chee­tahs trans­formed into the kind of Spring­bok de­but that sug­gests he will be around for many more years.

So too Stephan Lewies. The big Sharks man came from the famed north­ern “lock fac­tory” but was not picked up by the Blue Bulls and ended up at the Sharks academy from whence he made his way into KwaZulu-Natal sides un­til earn­ing his first Spring­bok cap against Scot­land in Port El­iz­a­beth in June.

Though it is right to have youth pro­grammes, Saru needs to ex­pand the pro­gramme to make room for late de­vel­op­ers, in par­tic­u­lar promis­ing young black play­ers who come from dis­ad­van­taged back­grounds, and nur­ture play­ers for longer rather than cut­ting them loose af­ter age 20 – per­haps by rein­tro­duc­ing an Un­der-23 com­pe­ti­tion.

dan.retief@city­press.co.za Fol­low me on Twit­ter @retief­dan

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