Little over a year ago, nine year old Banele Ncoyo had never played rugby before. Now he’s just two weeks away from playing in his first-ever Sevens Rugby tournament.
Banele, and the rest of the squad, are all products of the Khayelitsha CONNECT Touch Rugby Academy. The academy will enter an Under-11 and Under-13 team into the Atlantic Rugby and Sports Academy 7's tournament which will take place at Green Point Common in Cape Town on 25 April 2015.
The CONNECT Academy first started in 2014 and has had over 50 players come through its proverbial doors. More than half of those now form part of a key group of players who regularly play in competitive touch leagues around Cape Town. These players will also form the base of a number of contact rugby squads which are about to be launched.
In March, two players from the academy, Simphiwe Tom and Aubrey Grootboom were selected to represent the Western Cape Touch team at an interprovincial tournament. Their team made it all the way to the finals, where they eventually lost 4-3 to the Bulls. It’s the brain child of Murray Ingram and Sbu Momoti. Ingram has worked in Khayelitsha for over seven years on a number of projects, including the very successful Department of Coffee, Khayelitsha’s first ever coffee shop. In 2014, Yanga Qinga joined them as coach after connecting with Ingram on Twitter.
Although the basis of the academy is touch rugby, this serves as a springboard into contact rugby. Through touch rugby, the players learn the fundamentals of rugby, from ball skills to phase play. Girls and boys play together, but the ultimate goal is to start up a dedicated girls’ team. The academy also offers life experiences for the kids and helps players understand that there a number of careers available in sport – from coaching to refereeing as well as nuanced medical care.
The system is not without its challenges, though. It is entirely dependent on donations and volunteer work to keep it ticking over. The academy offers an entirely holistic experience, meaning specialised training, conditioning and a meal after every training session and at every match is provided. Food is largely sponsored by the iCafe, a skills incubator based in the Cape Town Science Centre in Observatory.
“Of course it’s tricky when you rely on donations, but somehow we make things work,” says Ingram.
“The iCafe, which works on the same basic principles as us, have been great in their support, but we’re always fundraising for everything from boots to gum guards. These are the things that most of us will get for our kids and take for granted.”
Players are dropped off on their doorstep after every match and communication with parents takes place regularly in order to ensure they too understand why this experience is important.
Ingram adds: “For us, communication with parents is crucial. This is one of the fundamental, non-negotiable in what we do. When possible, we bring parents to the games to support the kids.”
With transformation in South African sport a hot topic at the moment, the work that goes into developing young talent is crucial. With school league structures lacking and MOD programmes often focussing on indigenous games rather than professional sporting codes, it is programmes like these which will ultimately make a difference.
“Transformation at national level is a convenient distraction. Both private and public sectors are failing to assist grassroots development. Anyone that is serious about transformation should be supporting sustainable grassroots sports development, first and foremost,” says Ingram.
The CONNECT Rugby Academy might only be scratching the surface of potential, but it’s already making an impact where others don’t care to tread.