Former schoolboy flyhalf Kieran Houlston is using lockdown as an opportunity for change
Many would say that the hard lockdown in 2020 created hopeless situations for countless South Africans. But there are also those who will tell you that out of hopeless situations sometimes comes the opportunity for change, for innovation, and the scope to do things differently. Kieran Houlston is one of them.
The former schoolboy flyhalf is now relishing a new opportunity after spending some time away from the game following a life event that had a big impact on his young career. And he has found his way back to professional rugby in a rather unconventional way.
Houlston, a St. John’s College product, was involved with the Sharks and the Lions before injury intervened. But it was the death of his uncle, Springbok legend James Small, that delivered the hardest blow.
While Varsity Cup-winning mentor Kevin Musikanth, who coached Houlston at school, would tell you that he never doubted Houlston’s abilities or potential, there was a time when the 21-year-old himself struggled with direction and was a bit uncertain about his future in the sport. This is where opportunity and positive mentorship helped facilitate Houlston back on track with a platform to reach his potential.
“I was in a dual role with UCT and St. John’s and I noticed this kid playing Under-16 rugby, I felt he was playing out of position at fullback. I went up to Kieran’s dad and said ‘your son can be a professional rugby player’, Musikanth said of the first time he had seen Houlston in action.
“The following year Kieran became the St Johns 1st XV flyhalf and was the standout player at St John’s for two years. He was there when we beat Jeppe and Michaelhouse for the first time in many years, we also made the Top 20 schools’ list that year from being outside of the top 50 in the country, he was a prefect…he’s a classic example of what rugby can do for a schoolboy.
“I remember somewhere along the line in his matric year before the season, when Kieran had just been made captain of the team, his academics took a dive and his mentors called us in and told us that Kieran was potentially going to fail matric and he should concentrate on his studies. They said he can’t spend all his time playing rugby and his marks were suffering. They asked me as the coach to help facilitate Kieran studying more, I remember saying to Kieran in the meeting ‘can you just pass your matric please? We will make time for you to study in the gym between workouts and practices, but just make sure you pass the same way you prepare for rugby.’ And he did, and I think he did better than anybody expected. So, that was kind of the relationship we had.
“Then came the Maccabi Games, in his matric year and at the end of the rugby season, just before prelims. So, he had to study, and I was trying to get him as a talented schoolboy to come and play in the Maccabi Games in his busiest year. It was a hard thing to get over the line, but Kieran did come he played for South Africa Maccabi that year, with his uncle James who was also on the coaching staff and we won the Sevens gold medal.”
Houlston, who has been invited to the Stellenbosch Academy of Sport (SAS) by former Blitzboks skipper, Frankie Horne (current Sevens programme director at SAS and Rugby Israel consultant), he also has the opportunity to lock down a World 10s Series spot after impressing while in Israel.
“A few years later Kieran is back at SAS, this time playing with the Israeli boys, the very same boys who he had beaten in 2017 in the final,” Musikanth added. “He got an opportunity and he jumped on it. He was sponsored by Ciitech South Africa and Frankie was very happy with what he saw from him, so he invited him to SAS. Out of a terrible Covid year, and after taking a very wayward route, Kieran is back on track to professional rugby.”
Houlston went on to explain how his uncle’s passing led to him breaking away from rugby briefly and how he worked his way back.
“Originally, my interest in sport actually started in soccer. Both my grandfathers played professional football, my one grandfather played for what was then known as the Springboks, and the other one played for Zim. So, I always enjoyed soccer, I played centre back. My love for rugby kind of morphed around the culture of the sport, and I of course had my uncle and my dad’s influence coming in. I think I got my first rugby ball when I was in grade two. My uncle and my dad took me to a park. From that point on my interest grew. I was fascinated by the game and learning the culture behind it, I found the culture more interesting than the game, actually,” he said as he reflected on where it all started.
“I started jolling some really nice rugby and I eventually got invited to join the Super Rugby pre-season. Working with World Cup-winners like Makazole Mapimpi and Lukhanyo Am was really inspiring. I played in a warm-up game against the Lions Under-21 side and after that the Lions decided that they had a bit more interest in me, and I jumped on that. I moved and got to the Lions, we were about to start the season, but unfortunately then my uncle passed. That’s kind of where rugby took a backseat. It took a lot of readjustment – my uncle was a big role player for me, I was always trying to get to the level where he was at.
“Hearing his stories and watching him play on clips and stuff…that was big for me, so when we lost him, I also lost a lot of motivation. I took some time off from training and the Lions sent me to go play for Wits. I played two games for them. I was supposed to play against the Bulls Under-21 side on the weekend of my second game for Wits, I was going to be on the bench, but they wanted me to get some much-needed match fitness and as luck would have it, I snapped my ankle and ended up having to get an operation. This took a long time to come right. I wasn’t able to go to the Lions for rehabilitation, so I was kind of left to my own devices.
“I lost sight of myself and I became very detached from the world. I went back to Durban to go play Varsity College club rugby, but they sent us home because of the coronavirus so I went to Cape Town instead to go stay with some friends. There were a lot of distractions. Then, on the 4th of April this year I decided that I was going to turn around and start playing rugby again.”
Covid-19 changed the way we do sport. From no-contact training sessions and downsized training groups to having games and competitions cancelled and playing in empty stadiums, professional rugby, like all other sports, experienced a year like no other.
It’s not just the pros who suffered the harsh reality of the pandemic - opportunities were lost all round. Houlston, though, saw this period as a chance to realign and set some goals.
“During this Level 5 lockdown I was forced to sit down and think, I fell in love with the idea of rugby again, I needed that culture of commitment. I wanted to be a part of a team environment and a family again. I feel like a team environment is just like a family, and if I can find more and more family members, I will be a happier person. I found the team environment and training and studying again, and that made me happy. I got a diary and I started writing all this stuff down to try and find a path in rugby again.
“I started training twice a day again and completed 16 sessions a week, I started spending a lot more time with my family and I refocused myself on what it means to realise my rugby potential – minus the distractions. Things were starting to look right again, so I started looking for my next opportunity. Thank goodness for me, Coach Kev gave me a call to catch up and I told him I wanted to play again. My original idea was to try and get into the States and Kevin turned around and said he had an may have an opportunity for me. Initially, I wasn’t going to go to a training camp in Israel, I was going to meet their squad in Stellenbosch, but Kevin then suggested I go to Israel for a little bit and train in a focused environment, that’s when I decided I might as well go as I had nothing to lose.
“My time in Israel re-established my love for the game, in the two or three weeks I was involved in their rugby environment made me make my decision that this is what I really wanted, that this is my life path. I knew then that if I wanted it badly enough, I would force my way into a system somehow.”
Clifton Flack, managing director of Ciitech International, added that he is pleased with how they’ve been able to assist Houlston until now.
"Kieran has the potential to go all the way and I am thrilled that Ciitech SA has played a role in creating a platform for him to shine. I feel it is critical in sport, that talented players are given opportunities to achieve what they are destined to do on the field. I am thrilled that we have been able to play our part in Kieran's rugby dreams,” said Clifton Flack, MD Ciitech International.
Other than serving as the backline coach for Pirates for a couple of years, Small wasn’t formally involved in senior coaching after serving as assistant coach to NWU-Pukke in that Varsity Cup final (against Musikanth’s UCT Ikeys in 2014), but he was keen to get into coaching again, the former False Bay coach said.
“I had roped James into coaching with me back in 2017. He became a consulting coach at St. John’s, he also came with me to Israel when to help coaching the SA Maccabi team. Before he passed on, we were in lots of talks about his rugby coaching and staying in the game. James and I spoke a lot he helped me through some things, and I helped him through a few things, from a rugby perspective even though we competed during the Varsity Cup, we had this mutual understanding and respect…a real friendship, rugby does this.
“Kieran’s got big shoes to fill, but that the same time, he’s an extremely talented young man, he can light up any rugby field. He has a unique skill set and you can see that rugby is in his blood, but it’s now about his abilities and his own determination. Rugby wise, there is no doubt that he’s got it,” said Musikanth.
On the lessons he’s learnt, his immediate future, and the role Musikanth played as a coach until now, Houlston said: “I’m really excited about this program at SAS. The program is five months long, and I think SAS is a great place to be away from the distractions and surrounded by people who have the same goal as you. That was the mistake I made – I didn’t appreciate it enough. Going to the Sharks out of school I had the mindset of ‘okay cool, I’m playing in a professional environment’, and that was kind of it, I didn’t think of it any further.
“I ended up going there and training, but on a deeper level I should maybe have focused on what they provided for me. I was getting fed every day, I had a roof over my head, and they catered to my every basic need and more, more than what I could ask for, just because I could play rugby. I think it was more attached to my ego rather than it being attached to my everyday life. I have since grown appreciation for what the game can provide.”
If you had to ask Houlston, it’s clear that acknowledgement in terms of a player’s development as rugby player and a positive environment can make a big difference.
“It’s all very surfaced-based when it comes to the relationships between players and coaches,” he said. “One thing that Kevin does very successfully is that he’s a culture builder. He builds an incredible culture that lasts through rugby games and the heritage culture he creates doesn’t just start when you get onto the field and end when the game is done, it carries on. I feel coaches can get that balance wrong.”
Over the December period, the Israeli rugby team visited SAS, and while it offered a lot of learnings and provided great experience to all those who were involved in various capacities, Musikanth emphasised what the tour did for Houlston and what similar ventures could offer other players in future.
“The team, in order to come to SAS, had to get tested three times and everybody was so desperate to make the touring team and wanted to be on that plane. We wanted to give them that experience, so it meant that during the pandemic we were potentially exposing ourselves to Covid with rugby training and somehow before the flight nobody got Covid. We got our results the day of our departure, so everybody was stressing over the results. If one person had Covid before leaving, then nobody from the squad would have been able to come to SA.
“It was such a special thing, it was meant to happen. While Kieran gets a World 10s Series opportunity, there are further happy stories - what about the guy who came to South Africa for the first time? What about the guy who was involved in a spanbou session for the first time? All these are happy stories. Even the guy who got left behind, he will realise that that can be him next year in a different opportunity if he works hard. As a sport rugby is tough enough and sometimes we forget that there are many routes to a destination. Looking back at amazing stories like the opportunities that have been created during this time for players like Kieran…all that shows the tenacity to never give up.”
For those who had their opportunities scraped last year, Houlston had some advice.
“Thinking of the boys who weren’t able to showcase their skills last year…a lot of boys would have been relying on their matric year to get a contract. My advice to them would be to keep their head up and keep working, if they want it bad enough, they’ll find a way to force themselves into the system.”