Former St John's lock Alex Groves, now with the Bristol Bears, is one of the South African players who went abroad seeking greener pastures. Photo: Bristol Bears
Former St John's lock Alex Groves, now with the Bristol Bears, is one of the South African players who went abroad seeking greener pastures. Photo: Bristol Bears

How do we ensure that the post-school player exodus doesn’t become a real problem?

By Wynona Louw Time of article published Feb 28, 2021

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CAPE TOWN - How do we ensure that the post-school player exodus doesn’t become a real problem?

Ahead of the 2020 season, 18 schoolboys packed their bags and headed abroad.

Now, considering the wealth of rugby-playing youngsters South Africa has, that’s not too bad a number. But can more be done to help retain talent, especially the talent that is sometimes overlooked?

Bristol Bears lock Alex Groves is one of the players who left SA shores ahead as part of that group. At the beginning of 2020, he played his first game for the English club.

According to Kevin Musikanth, who coached Groves at St. John’s College, the second-rower could have easily fallen through the cracks had he not found himself in the right environment.

“I noticed him playing Under-14 and he was mind-blowingly large for his age. From the very beginning he said he was going to be a professional player, and it’s good to see that he realised that,” he said.

“Alex joined my individual high performance programme from Grade 8 to 11, and my biggest concern was him giving up rugby for non-rugby reasons. The pressure around academics was too great and could easily have discouraged Alex’s pure focus on wanting to play rugby. I always encouraged Alex to study hard but it was important to encourage his dream of being a professional rugby player, I think it is very important for youngsters to have sports aspirations too.

“It’s a pity that not everyone throws fertiliser on the bold dreams of aspiring rugby players. Alex was literally banging on my door every day wanting to train and that’s what we did basically every day. He’s got a full career ahead of him,” Musikanth said.

He went on to explain that the right people need to be involved in school structures to ensure that young players get the best assistance possible so that we don’t lose players who have the potential to play a valuable role for SA rugby.

“Given the fact that we are world champions, given the fact that we have a million rugby players, given the fact that we have this unbelievable resource, rugby is something that’s critically important for schools, and a professional to need to run those programmes.

“Dealing with a young rugby player should not be an experiment. Sometimes, in a school environment, coaches prefer to deal with kids that are more ‘coachable’. I’m not saying Alex wasn’t coachable, he was very coachable, but he needed professional rugby people around him, that was the only way he was going to thrive, especially in the schoolboy system.

“I’m not sure he would have continued playing rugby had he not been in a kind of professional environment, had he not worked with conditioning coaches, had he not worked with physios when he got injured.

“Yes, he went to an academy in Bristol, but he had to pack a bag and leave, so that’s him fighting two things. He had to leave his family and his comforts at home, and the fact that he was willing to make that move takes him 50 percent closer to making it, because not everybody would do that. It’s a huge character plus. He carved his own future with the opportunities that were available to him."

Being somewhat restricted to one sport is something that is not always a positive for a youngster, but in Groves’ case, it seems to have worked out just fine.

The towering forward, didn’t stick to rugby only because he or his parents wanted him to channel his energy and specialise early. Instead, it was his physical digits that made things tough for him.

At 2.04 metres tall and weighing in at 120 kilograms, he is no average 20-year-old. Ask his peers about his frame while he was still in school and they’d probably tell you the same about a much younger Groves.

Ultimately, rugby become his outlet.

“When I was in about Grade 4 or so, the rest of my schoolmates would be playing soccer and cricket or whatever at break-time, and sometimes they would say I couldn’t play because I was too big. It was like that across sports, I also struggled in school, I struggled to focus, so the field became my outlet.

“Me not being able to play certain sports because of my size was not nice for me, but at least for rugby it came as a positive. I started playing in Grade 4, then I came to St John’s and luckily I fell under coach’s wing. It’s then that I knew I wanted to be a professional rugby player. I was really fortunate to be able to surround myself with individuals who really helped me grow and get into a professional environment and helped me strike that balance between school or academics and sport, and at the end of the day it was sport.”

Groves was first included in the England Under-20 Six Nations matchday squad in March last year for their game against Wales at Kingsholm Stadium.

While he was an unused replacement, the opportunity only strengthened his desire to make the most of the 2021 season.

“I’ve been here for about a year now, and it’s just been really, really amazing…playing with guys you used to watch on TV as a kid, being coaches by a legend like Pat Lam, seeing your game grow from month to month. Besides the rugby, Bristol is just an amazing city as well. There is no other place in England I would rather have moved to. So, it’s perfect. Covid did take a little bit of that away, but at least rugby is back.

“One of my goals for the year is to get a Premiership debut, I’m really striving towards that. Another one is to play most the Six Nations games for the U20s this year. So, I have so much to be excited about and look forward to.”

“Initially I wanted to become a professional soccer player, but that quickly went out the window. When I went to St. John’s the plan, or at least part of the plan, was to go to Australia, play for the Brumbies or the Waratahs and then get my citizenship and play for Australia.

“From a young age emigrating was always the base of the idea. Australia quickly dissipated and England came into the picture because my dad was born there and moved to South Africa when he was young, so I be able to play for England without having to wait for years, which was a huge bonus. That’s what actually finalised the plan of going to England. So, the goal is to play for England and then hopefully wear a British & Irish Lions jersey one day.”

Groves also reflected on one of the lessons he learnt from Musikanth while at St. John’s: “I was having a tough season in Grade 11. We were playing Pretoria Boys and I wasn’t playing my best game, coach substituted me and I was pretty upset that I got subbed, it was my first time getting subbed, and in that same week we went to the school restaurant and he sat me down to explain.

“All the games were recorded, so he showed me a clip where you could see me shaking my head as I was getting subbed, and he taught me that me getting subbed is not because of anything else, but because we have the interests of the team ahead of ourselves. You have to put your own personal goals aside for the betterment of the team, and that’s what he taught me. It’s a lesson that still sticks with me. I was reminded of it again when that happened to Johnny Sexton a few weeks ago and he shook his head.”

@WynonaLouw

IOL Sport

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