Pretoria - The Crusaders face a storm of controversy ahead of their Vodacom Super 14 semi-final this weekend against the Bulls in Soweto after plans were revealed that they plan to poach South Africa’s best under-16 players.
The South African Rugby Union has confirmed it has approached the New Zealand Rugby Union on an official level to complain about the “horrifying” Crusaders conduct in trying to bolster their youth ranks with South African talent. SARU CEO Johan Prinsloo confirmed to Supersport.com that a strongly worded letter had been sent to the NZRU to complain after the Crusaders Academy approached major rugby schools in the country to try and recruit players at a “talent identification camp” in Pretoria in July.
The story was initially picked up by Business Day Friday, and Prinsloo confirmed to Supersport that a high-level meeting had taken place, where SARU had decided that that the plans were to be met with “anger and disgust”. The news comes hours before the Crusaders hope to upset the odds and beat the defending Super 14 champion Bulls in the first international rugby game to be played in Soweto Saturday.
A letter from the Crusaders Academy has been circulated to schools in SA containing detailed information about a “nationwide talent identification programme”, with the first step in this process being “an all-expenses-paid training camp” for 60 under-16 players in Pretoria from July 5-10.
Players for the camp are expected to be recruited from Pretoria, Johannesburg, Bloemfontein, Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and Durban.
Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder and several former Crusaders Test players are expected to attend the invitation-only camp.
Players would be enticed with long-term scholarship opportunities, whereafter they would graduate into the Crusaders wider training squad, with an eye on representing the New Zealand franchise in the Super 14 and ultimately the All Blacks after that.
SARU said they would also inform the Minister of Sport, Makhenkesi Stofile and the chairman of the Portfolio Committee on Sport, Butana Khompela about the situation and hoped to resolve it amicably. If not, SARU would formally ask SANZAR to intervene.
“We understand that it is a free market and that players will move, but we have had a look at the letter that has been forwarded to principles and sport organisers in schools in the country,” SARU CEO Johan Prinsloo told Supersport.com “We invest very heavily in our young talent with our extensive junior programmes at under 13, 16, 18, 19 and 20 level, not only in terms of money and coaching, but we also cover transport and accommodation costs for these junior weeks. All this money comes from the provincial unions and SARU.
“We know that from time to time individuals will move to other countries, but we think that this time it is pushing the limit a bit too far,” Prinsloo added.
SARU was alarmed with the intent that the Crusaders have in recruiting young talent, and feels it had to act to stop the country being pillaged of its young talent.
“It is the first time that it came at us with such a gale force wind. From time to time we are made aware of these sorts of incidents but this is a very big concern that we felt we had to address.
“We had a meeting and decided to send a letter to the New Zealand Rugby Union, as well as the SA Schools Association strongly condemning this action. We also sent letters to all the schools involved, communicating to them that we have a major investment in the youth in the respective provinces and that it is our responsibility to protect and maintain this talent in South Africa.”
Prinsloo said he hoped the issue would be resolved amicably and that the Crusaders would withdraw their attempts to recruit young talent in South Africa.
“If not, we feel we have a good enough relationship with our SANZAR partners to take it up at SANZAR level.” The letter to the NZRU, excerpts of which were published by Business Day, admits that from time to time individuals are targeted “but what we find frankly horrifying is the systematic and widespread targeting of young players in SA ...”
“We would therefore appreciate it if you could intervene on our behalf with the Crusaders by passing on our concerns and asking them to cancel the expedition. This initiative may be strictly legal, but it disregards the ethos of the game and we regard it as an aggressive and selfish enterprise, paying little regard to the welfare of a Sanzar partner and — because of the envisaged scale — interfering in the rugby operations of a fellow International Rugby Board member,” the letter reads.
The IRB confirmed as well to Supersport.com that it “is aware of the matter” and is “currently gathering facts” before reacting to the Crusaders move.
Prinsloo did say however that while the Crusaders officials may be in attendance with SARU officials at the Super 14 semi-final in Soweto, they would not be approached on the matter, leaving it for a “more appropriate forum.” “Saturday is such a big day historically for South African rugby that we don’t want to take away from it. We believe their representatives are here to enjoy the match and we will address the issue at a more appropriate forum,” Prinsloo concluded.
The move has also been greeted with shock and surprise in Pretoria, with Bulls High Performance Manager Ian Schwartz perplexed as to the reasons behind it.
“It is surprising, especially as we know the Crusaders to already have such strong structures. They are normally one of the best sides in bringing through young talent. In practice it certainly doesn’t sound like the ideal situation. It is the same as someone picking the best vegetables in a corner shop and then standing there and selling it as their own,” Schwartz, the former SA under-20 manager and one of the best youth identification scouts in the country believes. The Crusaders may have some advantage at not playing at Loftus, but their plans to poach SA talent could make the Orlando bullring an even more intimidating place to play.