Border Rugby Union has been in the media for humbling defeats and race rows that never seem to end.
The whipping boys of the ABSA Currie Cup First division; having only won a handful of games in the last couple of seasons. Fans would console themselves after heavy losses on many occasions, as the Border senior team was means for opposition to acquire four-try bonus points.
I have looked into the history of the Union the founding fathers of the Currie cup itself. The Union has been in turmoil. They have regressed since the days of winning the Vodacom Shield in 2003. It has become a team that has no title sponsor, training facilities and only a handful of quality players. Lets’ not deceive ourselves the region has quality players who have been bred there; in the form of Allan Dell, Siya Kolisi, and JJ Engelbrecht, to mention a few.
These are players that could have represented either Border or Eastern Province Kings. Now the question that comes to mind is where is it going wrong? Clearly the talent is unattracted by the mess in the province and is lured away to other unions.
The current squads at the Bulldogs, according to performances, looked worse than most club rugby sides. They showed a lack in basic skills, no game plan, poor defense and no creativity. This team was in shambles and at this rate, by 2010, they should have been extinct.
An academy was then established in the region, previously called the Zululand Rugby Academy now Border Rugby Academy in 2011. This was a big boost for junior rugby and this could in turn impact the senior ranks. Their aim was to have the majority of players be black and colored players in order to develop their talent.
The under 19s and under 21s, who previously had been struggling in the B division of the Currie Cup, were promoted to the A-division by 2012. The sides have been battling against the ‘big unions’ but the progress and rebuilding is a long term process and not a once off. This also coincided with a change in management in the senior ranks as well. Paul Flanagan was brought in and realized he had to start from scratch. He had to rebuild a fallen empire…
To onlookers and fans, Border was dead. It needed cash injection, fresh ideas, players and a new vision. It required a patient management. Positively however, the Union president and the board of directors were fully behind fixing and restoring pride and competitiveness at Border Rugby. But the question lingered, was this task even possible?
This was the situation: A club Province that had no protocol at all, no professional structures in place, no organised record keeping and no discipline measures. Conditioning was not planned and players only had access to a Strength and Conditioning coach approximately for 2 hours a week.this has a huge negative effect on player perfomance. Coaches were not able to determine player progress in any department. Basic skills where missing, which at this level, is unacceptable. Scenarios where professional players showed poor technical work when passing, catching, kicking and tackling; was a clear and a blatant sign of poor structures.
The coaching staff that was present were not qualified enough for a job of this demand. This was outragious, and highlighted just how much was needed to be done. Limited funds, sponsors and a lack of public support; very few changes could be expected until October 2013 when Flanagan onboard as a contractor could only apply for the job officially and control the necessary aspects that warranted performance, it was a huge ask. The other coach was still on a payroll at home.
He thus adopted a squad that by the start of the 2012 season had seen them lose eighteen players. Some through retirement, some being released from contracts due to not reaching Currie Cup standards; and others who had simply requested to join other unions.
With one look at the squad he had been given, Flanagan was shocked. There was a gulf in quality between the u21s, club and professional players. Apathy saw a lack of attendance after the first meeting ; which resulted in measures being put in place to close the gap between the u21s, club and proffesional set ups.
Little enthusiasm from the amateur sector to help the local players develop resulted in only two clubs requesting the aid of the professional coaches. Border struggled in Pauls’ first season, with only 34 players, of which only six were seasoned at this level; another six needed experience and another three had niggling injuries. The balance was just out of their depth. In his first season Border finished bottom, losing all 14 of their games. Having the second worst defense in the league, all that could be worked on was attacking structures. This resulted in bonus points for tries and finishing within 7 points, which kept them positive. However, compared to the previous seasons they were still in a very deep valley. The clean up had begun but it was nowhere easy with a new coach, new philosophies and new goals. Border was finally under much needed construction.
Border had to get players. The players they had lacked experience in key positions. They had no recognisable number 2, 8, 9, 10, 13, 15, kicker or assistant coach. Reinforcements were added at the end of the season, but not all of the players that the coach had decided on. The squad still lacked tactical decision makers with Currie Cup experience. Budget constraints; saw opportunities given to club and Varsity cup players that had potential but needed a lot of coaching. Work ethic was the first requirement. With all the constraits, Paul Flanagan and his team continued to work with what they had in order to make progress in the season to come.
There was a sense of positivity surrounding the 2013 season, along with a few new faces in the side and the contracting of six new players from the u21 Junior ranks. Of the six, only two were either capable or had potential to play Currie Cup rugby immediately. They lacked flyhalf options and had no quality kicker in the side. The severity of the situation saw the team lose close games, as a result of missed kicks. The sourcing of the players was done by the coaching staff in the off season, but Union directors wouldn’t sanction it due to either race or money.
This was something that affected the side in the 2012 and 2013 season. It’s like imagining a Springbok side without Morne Steyn.
This cost the team 6 games within 7 points; and an added 24 points which could have had them make the play offs. All credit must go to the players and their leaders. The 2013 season has shown character within this outfit, despite all the off fields battles. Games that spring to mind which showcased the character were the fixtures against the top sides Pumas and the Eastern Province Kings. They have grown into a team that can hold their own and have come a long way. Do not get me wrong, they are still far from being anything like the Pumas; but they are now a rugby side. The coaching staff has put in a lot of work and has laid a foundation. Finally, Border has something to build on and undoubtedly is starting to reap the rewards.
The teams’ win percentage of 28, 5% is the highest it’s been since 2004. This has seen Border haul themselves from the bottom of the log up to seventh and boasting the third best defense in the league. Change was inevitable and growth was optional. Surely the staff where on the right track? Whether or not the union will offer the management contracts to continue this rebuild, is still uncertain.
I decided to look into the fight between the union and Pty. Accusations of racism, lack of transformation and why the minnows, including Border, would vote against the expansion of the Currie Cup Premier Division? The strongest of accusations and one that is familiar in South Africa has been where the race card has been used. The voting? A decision taken by the amateur set up without consulting the professional side. A hasty decision that had nothing to do with rugby at all. One has to wonder if rugby administrators have no idea what benefits their Union, what are they there for?
`I managed to visit the Border Rugby Union for four days to see how it is run. I spoke to people who didn’t know me; from the current coaches he works with, to the men that work at the gate, members of Flanagan’s coaching staff and players he currently coaches and has coached in the past.
Direct opposite of the media frenzy I’ve read. Instead I have heard of his humble desire for excellence; his need to see the players fulfill their potential and the friendly smile and greeting every morning. Instead of being a coach only, he acts as a father figure, checking on the well being of his players daily.
Reports I read and witnessed are different. In most cases, this may have been a scenario of players that were not skillful enough and were dropped to work on their weaknesses; blaming racism for their inabilities to meet the criteria’s needed at Currie cup level.
Another factor contrary to reports saw Border have four players of color selected in the South Africa Presidents’ XV on merit. A side selected on the criteria of the ‘best players in the First division.’
This also revealed the new structures of coaching and conditioning that were in place. The Vodacom Cup was also used for player development which saw the side win their last two games. Coaching staff also watched club games and made enquiries about players with potential. This system would prevent players from being pulled up to the squad after notable adjustments. The administration would publicly blast coaches for the players not getting opportunities while they sabotage them behind closed doors. What is it all about? Rugby? or other ulterior motives that need to be questioned?
Paul Flanagan has insisted that it is not about him, but rather the sponsors and especially his players. He praised the leadership of some outstanding individuals in the form of Gareth Krause, Chumani Booi, Blake Kyd and Brian Shabangu, to mention a few. Against all odds, the union won’t let them develop. Its a pity rugby has come to being overshadowed by all these allegations, resulting in us forgetting the true meaning of the game.
Border Rugby is on a rise and this is evident in the results. The current management have been given little credit for the amounts of work they have done. On a low budget and restricting constraints they have made more progress in two years than has been seen in the last eight years. With only one senior coach who has to cover forwards, back, scrums, lineouts, kicking, tactics, conditioning and logistics; this is a huge step forward. We will keep an eye on the Border situation and hope for the sake of the beautiful game that this Union continues to rise.
These are the new pioneers of the Union. Flanagan’s management team have had a trial for the first two seasons and statistics have shown that the trials where successful. . If given an opportunity this Bulldog will show a lot more bite…
Guest Article by Benedict Chanakira
Benedict is our first budding writer to submit his work. Send us your stories, photos, videos …we want to hear from you.