Johannesburg - One of the untold stories of the concluded SuperSport Rugby Challenge is that of the Border Bulldogs, a provincial union that has pulled itself up by the bootstraps to regain competitiveness over the past few seasons.
Throughout the group stages of the tournament, Border’s calling card was giving the opposition the hurry up thanks to the unorthodox mix of almost ignoring the set phases and running their opponents ragged as they looked to win games by simply scoring more points than them.
The reason David Dobela’s team didn’t entirely get their name in the lights was their failure to make the quarterfinals because their points difference was one point less than the Free State XV, who advanced as one of the third-place finishers from the three-pool tournament.
But that wasn’t before three of their players – the well-rounded flyhalf Oliver Zono, deceptively quick and wily winger Mike Makase, and combative and skilful number eight Sokumphumla Xakalashe – had elbowed their way into the nation’s consciousness.
The diminutive Zono – with his rare blend of vision, pace, quick feet and soft hands, exploded onto the scene and finished in the top three of most of the important scoring statistics: top points scorers, try scorers, and most penalties and conversions scored.
The result was interest from Western Province, where he recently trialled, and the Pumas. The Southern Kings are possibly waiting in the wings to offer him a Pro14 deal in the wake of captain Lionel Cronjé’s departure.
But the catch with every modest Border success is that it invariably leads to an exodus of players at the end of every campaign. According to Monde Tabata, an SA Rugby executive member tasked with administrating the union three years ago, they stand to lose 11 players this year.
“They’ve had to eat humble pie and let the best players go to balance the books and survive financially,” he said.
The most recognisable of said best players is winger Makazole Mapimpi, whose exploits while seconded to the Southern Kings for Super Rugby earned him a deal with the Cheetahs.
Tabata’s frustration is that, in the past two years, Border – who consistently play squads made of 90% black players – have produced four Super Rugby players in Mapimpi, the Sharks’ Lukhanyo Am, Masixole Banda (Kings) and Johannes Jonker (Lions), but have nothing to show for it.
“Our coaches are paid a pittance compared to other coaches around the country, and the material they have is natural and raw without the intervention of traditional rugby schools. Yet each year, they produce players like Mapimpi,” Tabata said.
His main gripe is that Border – who were “bankrupt, owed every man and his dog in East London, could only pay players match fees and struggled to pay staff” three years ago, yet still managed to produce good results on a shoestring budget – are not being given the opportunity to show what they can do with real funds behind them.
“Border doesn’t get recognition even from sponsors. Mercedes-Benz and the local government are not interested despite the results,” he said.
“SA Rugby is also not putting its money where its mouth is. This is a factory of black talent, but it’s treated like every other small union.
“It should be looked at strategically from a transformation perspective because it is the only union producing African players at the rate that it is.”
For Mapimpi, who comes from Tsholomnqa, a rural area outside East London, Border had to change his diet, introduce him to a sports psychologist and effect other interventions to get him to where he is today.
“The advantage of Border developing a player is that he is in an environment where he won’t be played out of position and end up just playing for his salary, like they sometimes do at the bigger unions.”
Players from the so-called former Model C schools get snapped up by the Bulls and Sharks’ scouts, leaving youngsters from rural areas such as Tsholomnqa and Transkei dependent on Border to mine their talent.
To many, this sounds like another case of a smaller union coming out with its begging bowl, but, in the spirit of consistently growing the game, it makes perfect sense.
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