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FEATURE Culture, schooling and community supercharge the SA rugby conveyor belt

Culture, schooling and community supercharge the SA rugby conveyor belt
1 year ago

South Africa’s depth is the envy of the rugby world. More than 200 South African players compete across elite overseas leagues such as the Premiership, Top 14, Japan League One and Major League Rugby, while twice as many are involved in the lower tiers.

In spite of the ongoing exodus, local franchises have remained competitive in tournaments such as Super Rugby and the United Rugby Championship – with the Stormers and Bulls advancing to the inaugural final of the latter competition.

While form and results fluctuate at the elite level, South Africa’s production line is unfailingly consistent. The schools as well as SA Rugby’s Elite Performance Development programme routinely produce athletes with the physical and mental aptitude to succeed in professional rugby.

“There’s no question in my mind that the South African schools set-up is the most professional in the world,” says former Springbok and Bulls coach Heyneke Meyer. “I’ve coached in England and France, and I’m now involved in the United States, and I can tell you that the system in South Africa is a class apart.”

For a long time, there were a handful of schools that were widely acknowledged as bona fide South African rugby factories. 

Paul Roos Gymnasium tops the all-time list for Springboks produced (54) while three other Western Cape institutions – Bishops Diocesan College, South African College Schools (SACS) and Paarl Gymnasium – feature in the top five. Grey College in Bloemfontein ranks second on the list (46).



The fall of apartheid and a move towards professionalism led to monumental changes across the various levels of South African rugby. Since 1992, more has been done to harness the talent in the black and mixed-race communities – which comprises approximately 90% of the total population.

More schools have hired professional coaches and implemented high-performance programmes, and the schoolboy rugby scene has become fiercely competitive as a result. At present, there isn’t a great deal separating the top 20 schools teams in the country.

Local communities have played their part in creating a game-day atmosphere similar to that of a club derby. Many of the big match-ups are televised. Teenagers are competing in front of big crowds on a regular basis. The annual derby between Paarl Boys’ High and Paarl Gymnasium has to be staged at the town’s Faure Street Stadium in order to accommodate some 20,000 passionate fans.

Alex Shaw, Ealing Trailfinders’ head of recruitment, recently travelled to South Africa to visit a few schools and unions. He explains why the situation is very different to what many experience in England.

“What struck me was the atmosphere at the games,” he says. “I went to the Easter festivals and it was incredible to witness the level of support.

“It’s very different up in England, where you don’t have the same level of community support and involvement. The old boys don’t get behind the school teams like they do in South Africa. 

“School matches are big community events down south, and you see major companies like Mercedes sponsoring tents and so on. It all fuels the idea that representing your school 1st XV is an achievement in itself.”

King Edward II School
Students at the King Edward VII school take part in the traditional “War Cry” ahead of an inter-school rugby (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

During his successful tenure with the Bulls, Meyer followed the schoolboy rugby scene closely and recruited young stars from around the country for the Pretoria-based franchise’s programme. He is well aware of how the local culture contributes to player development.

“Rugby is just so massive in South Africa, and it’s for this reason that players start as young as six or seven playing mini-rugby,” he says. 

“You could say that our players aren’t as skillful as those in New Zealand at high school level, but the competition among our youngsters forces them to develop other qualities.”

After coaching the Bulls and Boks, Meyer enjoyed stints at Leicester Tigers and Stade Francais. He is currently the director of rugby at the Houston Sabercats in the USA. 

Having been exposed to a wide variety of systems at club and national level, Meyer is well placed to make a comparison. 

“New Zealand has some excellent schools. Where that system is particularly strong, however, is in the period between school and professional rugby. 

England has some great rugby schools, but the focus is very different in that they prepare the players for the various academies. Overall, these countries don’t have school systems with the same professional mindset as South Africa

Heineken Meyer, former Springboks coach

“The kids in France take up rugby very late, in that they only start coming together at clubs and academies in their late teens. The success of their junior side at the World Rugby U20 Championship, and of the national side in the recent Six Nations, shows that they are getting a lot right – but they don’t have the same school structures like we do in South Africa. 

“England has some great rugby schools, but the focus is very different in that they prepare the players for the various academies. Overall, these countries don’t have school systems with the same professional mindset as South Africa.

“You look at the top schools in South Africa, and all of them boast professional programmes and coaches that are good enough to coach at professional level.
“They have their own DORs, they have quality forwards and backline coaches, and perhaps most tellingly, they have professional conditioning coaches and programmes that you’d typically associate with a high-performance set-up.”

After playing 43 Tests for the Boks, Pieter Rossouw made a successful transition into coaching. He worked with the Bulls and Namibia, before taking up a post as Paarl Gymnasium’s director of rugby in 2016.

“We have an unbelievably good school system in South Africa that is built on heritage and tradition, and inherently we are a very competitive nation,” Rossouw says. 

“Think about how that comes together on a Saturday, where we have thousands of people around the field watching a school game. The old boys are heavily invested, which adds another edge. The players have ample motivation. Perhaps it’s this atmosphere that prepares the players for what’s to come at the pro level.

Pieter Roussouw
Pieter Rossouw is now head of rugby at Paarl Gymnasium which has produced 30 Springboks (Pic credit – Nick Wilson /Allsport)

“Rugby is a professional game nowadays, and maybe kids are working a lot harder for the opportunity to make a career out of it. It takes a lot of hard work to earn a university or provincial union contract. From the outset, the players are working towards the chance to play in front of a big crowd at school.”

Grey College head coach Jannie Geldenhuys agrees with Meyer and Rossouw on the matter of coaches and professional programmes transforming the schoolboy scene. 

The set-up was well resourced when Geldenhuys represented the Grey 1st XV back in 2007. That said, there has been further progress in recent years. 

“Most of the teachers coached the top teams in the old days,” Geldenhuys says. “We still have a good mix of teachers involved in our programme today, but there are more professional coaches in the mix than ever before. 

“You want that expertise to be passed down from former players to the boys. Former Boks like prop Wian du Preez and centre Helgard Muller are part of the set-up, and we believe that the knowledge that’s passed on will equip our boys to be better players.”

A more professional approach is not limited to South Africa’s traditional powerhouses. For example, one of Grey’s rivals in Bloemfontein, HTS Louis Botha, has produced six Boks since 1992, including Ox Nché and Joseph Dweba. Around the country, schools have invested more heavily to improve their rugby programmes.


TOTAL BOKS PRODUCED (1992-2022)371

“There are more schools competing at a high level these days, and that is great to see,” says Geldenhuys, who goes on to stress that the talent in South Africa isn’t limited to a few regions around the traditional schools or the country’s franchises. 

“If you look at where many of the great players come from, it’s not from the big cities. A lot of them are from the rural areas. A lot of them didn’t go to the top schools. 

“Now that we have more schools who have the resources to offer good rugby programmes, we have the potential to produce more quality rugby players across the board.

“That is only going to strengthen South African rugby in the long run. It certainly has strengthened schoolboy rugby. Right now we have a situation where any of the top 20 schools can beat one another on any given day. That speaks to the quality of the players.”

So how does SA Rugby ensure that the age-group teams, the franchises and the Boks benefit from this outstanding resource?

Geldenhuys highlights another major change that was made in 2015, when SA Rugby implemented its Elite Player Development (EPD) programme.

SA Rugby monitors players over the course of a five-year cycle, which begins provincially at U15 level and nationally at U16 level. The best of these players go on to represent the Junior Boks at the World Rugby U20 Championship, with Damian Willemse is a poster boy for the programme.

“The EPD has made a difference to how the talent is identified and brought through to the next level. There’s a lot of support for the schools, and for individuals who perhaps lack resources. The pathway has been strengthened for the younger players.” 

SA Rugby monitors players over the course of a five-year cycle, which begins provincially at U15 level and nationally at U16 level. The very best of these players go on to represent the Junior Boks at the World Rugby U20 Championship. 

Springbok utility back Damian Willemse is a poster boy for the programme.

Damien Willemse
The multi-talented Damien Willemse is a poster boy for South African’s EPD programme (Photo by PHILL MAGAKOE/AFP via Getty Images)
In 2014, Willemse represented the Western Province team that won the unofficial final  of the U16 Grant Khomo Week. By then, he had already been identified as a player of interest and placed in the EPD programme.

In his final two years at Paul Roos Gymnasium in Stellenbosch, Willemse played for WP in the U19 Craven Week tournament, and was part of the SA Schools team. He made the next step up to the SA Rugby Academy, and subsequently to the Junior Springboks.

In 2017, Willemse made his Super Rugby debut for the Stormers at the age of 18. He earned his first cap for the Boks a year later, and won the World Cup with the national side in 2019.

Willemse turned 24 shortly before winning the United Rugby Championship title with the Stormers this past June. He was backed to start at No 15 for the Boks ahead of stalwart Willie le Roux.

Some might say that Willemse’s best performances – for club and country – are yet to come. Over the next few years, he is likely to be pushed by the next generation of players emerging from the schools and EPD programme.

No 8 Evan Roos, who made his Test debut in July, as well as another relative newcomer in Jaden Hendrikse, are also products of the system. More than 90% of the players in the Junior Springbok team have been monitored since the age of 16.

“The EPD programme is driven by SA Rugby in conjunction with the provincial unions to ensure alignment, accurate talent identification and development in each region throughout the country,” says former Springbok flyhalf Louis Koen, who now serves as SA Rugby high performance manager and oversees the EPD programme. 

“Players are nominated by their provincial EPD units, which consist of provincial coaches, selectors and managers who watch the players at school level. Selections are subsequently confirmed by the national structures.

“The SA Schools teams form an integral part of the EPD programme. Selectors consider players who have the potential to represent the Junior Boks in subsequent years, and individuals who display an aptitude for international rugby in the long term.”

In the recent series staged in Paarl, the SA U18 team claimed two wins against England and one against France to finish the campaign unbeaten. The depth of the group was evident when SA U18A – the second-string lineup – pushed England and France close over the course of the week.

The plan to harness South Africa’s schoolboy talent and strengthen the pipeline to senior rugby is certainly working. The role the individual schools have to play, of course, is crucial.

“The school coaches work closest with these boys and know them well. Information should filter up from the schools to the provinces and our scouts at provincial level to get the right kids into the system,” explains Nico Serfontein, the manager of the first phase of EPD Operations.

“What also needs to be considered is that certain players develop later in their school careers. By bearing all this in mind, it is hoped that as few players as possible will fall through the cracks.”

While South Africa’s governing body doesn’t interfere with specific game plans, it does expect younger players to develop their fundamental and positional skills in accordance with a scientific conditioning programme.

SA Rugby deals with the provinces, who in turn work with the schools (they fall under the ambit of the Department of Basic Education). Again it’s not only the players from the so-called elite schools who progress to the national programmes.

“It’s not only about skills development, but various aspects that may need addressing,” says Herman Masimla, who is responsible for the second phase – essentially the U17s and U18s – of the EPD programme.

“For instance, you may find that one of the players has great skills, but lacks nutrition. Then we can try and make a plan. There may be other issues, such as position-specific conditioning, taking into consideration that the boys are still growing. We can’t just send them to the gym and give them the heaviest weights to work with.

“The approach is holistic in the sense that we aim to assist boys in becoming good all-round players first. If they make it to senior provincial level, they will have enough time to hone specific skills.”

Transformation at all levels of the game is of massive importance to SA Rugby.

“We are lucky in a sense that the schools and provinces all develop and deliver great players across all colours and walks of life,” says Koen. “One of the key aspects of our U15 talent identification initiative is to look at talented players of colour from the so-called smaller schools, often in rural areas.

South African schools rugby
A fan from the Affies v Pretoria Boys. South African school’s rugby is arguably the best in the world (Pic credit: Glen Botha)

“The two SA U18 sides that played against England and France recently are a good example of well-transformed sides picked on merit with none of the players thrust into a situation they were not yet ready for.”

While the top schools have churned out a large number of Springboks who have gone on to win World Cups, history tells us that the “smaller schools” are responsible for producing the bulk of South Africa’s provincial and international players.

The top schools continue to play an important role in terms of developing talent, but SA Rugby has taken steps to ensure that more rough diamonds are unearthed and polished.

SA Rugby stages three national U15 tournaments annually where players are selected from predominantly smaller schools – ie those who have four or fewer rugby teams – to play for their provinces.

This leads to an average of 25 to 30 players being scouted and offered opportunities to move to top schools on rugby bursaries. Many of these players go on to play representative rugby at U18 and U19 level.

Despite appearances, not all of the top schools boast formidable financial resources and often rely on the support of their old boys to maintain their systems and structures.

Paarl Gymnasium, for example, is a state-funded school, and does not have the financial clout of the private institutions. Rossouw would like to see a scenario where schools are eventually compensated for the part they play in an individual’s development.

A decade ago, many bemoaned the fact that schools in the Western and Eastern Cape developed a large number of players to the benefit of competing franchises and unions in the north and on the east coast. Nowadays, it’s feared that many overseas clubs as well as a few northern-hemisphere Test nations are reaping the benefits of the wider South African schools system.

“It’s frustrating when you see that, and I hope something will eventually be done to remedy the situation,” says Rossouw. 

“When you see the effort that goes into developing the players at school level, the lengths the schools and coaches go to…. in some cases, the kids can’t afford to pay for board or tuition and a plan needs to be made through a private donor or old boy. The player is developed by the school, and eventually goes on to win a pro contract. That’s great, but in many cases, none of that money comes back into the system. 

“In football, an academy that develops a player is entitled to some form of reimbursement. It would be great if rugby followed suit, as the schools could put that money back into their structures and development programmes – and ultimately that would strengthen the entire system. 

“There’s a lot of red tape, though, as unless you are an academy, you aren’t entitled to that sort of reimbursement. I’m optimistic that this will change in the future, and that a strong system will become even stronger.”

Grey College has produced the likes of Cobus Reinach and Frans Steyn, World Cup-winners who remain a part of the national team. Other alumni have gone on to represent foreign clubs and countries – with Lappies Labuschagne playing for Japan at the recent global tournament.


Brad BarrittEngland2012Kearsney College (Durban)
Allan DellScotland2016Queen’s College (Queenstown)
Cornell du PreezScotland2017Framesby (Gqeberha)
Rob HerringIreland2014SACS (Cape Town)
Oli KebbleScotland2020Bishops Diocesan College (Cape Town)
Jean KleynIreland2019Linden (Johannesburg)
Rory KockottFrance2014Selbourne College (East London)
Lappies LabuschagneJapan2019Grey College (Bloemfontein)
Bernard le RouxFrance2013Dirkie Uys (Moorreesburg)
Kotaro MatsushimaJapan2014Graeme College (Makhanda)
WP NelScotland2015HTS Drostdy (Worcester)
Wimpie van der WaltJapan2017Nelspruit (Nelspruit)
Dylan RichardsonScotland2021Kearsney College (Durban)
Bradley RobertsWales2021Michaelhouse (KwaZulu Natal)
Quinn RouxIreland2016Affies (Pretoria)
Pierre SchoemanScotland2021Affies (Pretoria)
Scott SpeddingFrance2014St John’s College (Johannesburg)
CJ StanderIreland, Lions2016Oakdale Agricultural (Riverdale)
Braam SteynItaly2016Paul Roos Gymnasium (Stellenbosch)
Kyle SteynScotland2020Trinityhouse (Johannesburg)
Josh StraussScotland2015Paul Roos Gymnasium (Stellenbosch)
Duhan van der MerweScotland, Lions2020Outeniqua (George)
Jaco van der WaltScotland2020Monument (Krugersdorp)
Paul WillemseFrance2019Monument (Krugersdorp)

Geldenhuys believes that both scenarios are positive results for the school.

“We’re preparing the players to take those opportunities,” he says. “It would be amazing if they went on to play a long career for the Cheetahs here in Bloemfontein, and eventually for the Boks. But if they are presented with another opportunity, that’s great too. We want what’s best for the individual.”

Meyer agrees that the players succeeding in foreign climes should be celebrated rather than derided, and that the schools and structures responsible for their development should receive due praise.

While the ongoing exodus – largely influenced by the socio-economic situation in South Africa – is a concern, the schoolboy conveyor belt will continue to deliver talent. According to Meyer, the current system will ensure that South Africa, rather than other nations, makes the most of the resource.

“It’s a big compliment to the South African system that so many overseas clubs are recruiting our players,” he says.
“The Springbok selection policy has changed in recent years, and so you could say that the national coach is in a stronger position in that he can select top players from top leagues around the world. That pool of talent is bigger, if you think of it in a global sense.
The well-oiled pathway to professionalism saw South Africa crowned World Champions in 2019 in Japan (Photo by Pablo Morano/Getty Images)

“As far as South Africans representing other nations is concerned… that’s sport. You are never going to keep all your players, and if you think about how many players are competing across schoolboy rugby in South Africa, you are never going to keep them all in the country – especially if there are other avenues to professional rugby.

“The benefit of the current system is that the national coach is – more often than not – getting first pick of the best players. If you keep 10 and lose one, that is a good outcome.”

When you speak to club coaches in Europe and Japan, they often praise South African players for their raw power and work ethic. Rossouw believes that these qualities are developed from a young age. The latter quality – and how it is shaped by South African culture – should not be underestimated.
We may be a small country in the grand scheme of things, but we still manage to make a big impact across the world of sports
Pieter Roussouw, 43-cap Springbok

“Most schools will preach about the balance between academics and sport – and rugby is not always the priority. Even though the set up is more professional these days, you also have a responsibility to teach the players about more than the game. You want to implement values that will help them succeed in all walks of life.

“South African players are known the world over for their work ethic. That’s why French and Italian clubs recruit so many South African players, as they know that these individuals won’t go to Europe at the end of their careers just to pick up a paycheque; they know that these players won’t shirk the hard graft. It’s fair to say that this appetite for hard work is instilled at a young age. 

“We may be a small country in the grand scheme of things, but we still manage to make a big impact across the world of sports,” Rossouw adds. “Think about how many golfers succeed at the highest level on a regular basis, or how our cricket players perform in leagues around the world, or how our swimmers and athletes fared at the recent Commonwealth Games. We have some great structures down here, but we are particularly blessed in terms of our culture.”


Steven KitshoffPaul Roos Gymnasium (Stellenbosch)
Vincent KochHugenote (Wellington)
Frans MalherbePaarl Boys (Paarl)
Ox NchéHTS Louis Botha (Bloemfontein)
Trevor NyakaneBen Vorster (Tzaneen)
Joseph DwebaHTS Louis Botha (Bloemfontein)
Malcolm MarxKing Edward VII (Johannesburg)
Eben EtzebethTygerberg (Cape Town)
Lood de JagerHugenote (Springs)
Salmaan MoeratPaarl Boys (Paarl)
Pieter-Steph du ToitSwartland (Malmesbury)
Siya KolisiGrey High (Gqeberha)
Elrigh LouwTransvalia (Vanderbijlpark)
Kwagga SmithHTS Middelburg (Middelburg)
Jasper WieseUpington (Upington)
Duane VermeulenNelspruit (Nelspruit)
Deon FouriePietersburg (Polokwane)
Franco MostertBrits (Brits)
Faf de Klerk Waterkloof (Pretoria)
Jaden Hendrikse Glenwood (Durban)
Herschel JantjiesPaul Roos Gymnasium (Stellenbosch)
Cobus Reinach Grey College (Bloemfontein)
Elton JantjiesFlorida (Johannesburg)
Handré PollardPaarl Gymnasium (Paarl)
Lukhanyo AmDe Vos Malan (Qonce)
Damian de AllendeMilnerton (Cape Town)
André EsterhuizenKlerksdorp (Klerksdorp)
Makazole MapimpiJim Mvabaza (Qonce)
Willie le RouxPaul Roos Gymnasium (Stellenbosch)
Canan MoodieBoland Landbou (Paarl)
Warrick GelantOuteniqua (George)
Damian WillemsePaul Roos Gymnasium (Stellenbosch)
Jesse KrielMaritzburg College (Pietermaritzburg)
Frans SteynGrey College (Bloemfontein)


Chaimon 670 days ago

Particularly interesting is how few players come from Jozi schools. An economic powerhouse with population, and hardly any Bokke. Interesting.

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