The year is 2009, I’m a 14-year-old boy sitting at my neighbour’s lounge, watching television. What’s on the “telly”? Good question! The Craven Week ironically played in my home city of East London at what was still called the Absa Stadium at that time (keep this in mind for the duration of this article). Andile “Ace” Jho (Keep this name in mind too) is sent flying down the left wing to clinch a massive victory for the home side, with the ambience from the home crowd enough to give you an indication of what that result means to the region.
Apart from Jho who was touted as a generational talent, that Border squad had the likes of Chris Cloete and Bangi Kobese who would go on to earn SA Schools selection. Other talented names that didn’t make SA Schools but went on to pursue the sport through academy contracts include Soso September, Dale Sabbagh and Olunje Gwampi.
Predictably none of them stay in the province as it is widely believed that it doesn’t have the adequate level of resources and coaching
required to take their fledging careers to the next level.
The year is 2015, I’m in my second year at University and I’m seated on one of the mobile stands next to the Rhodes University’s Great Field. Just above me are the annoying sounds of a walkie talkie, but what compensated for that irritating sound, would’ve been the sound knowledge and passion for rugby clearly audible with each instruction this coach is belting out. Who is this coach you may ask? Mzwandile Stick, who had brought an EP Kings Academy side to play against the Rhodes first team.
His well-drilled side was hardly troubled by their hosts, I mean it did contain highly touted players from the Border region such as Jedwyn “Creature” Harty who made SA U16 High-Performance selection and was very unfortunate to miss out on SA Schools selection two years later. The team also included a fella named Dyllon Domoney a mobile yet aggressive hooker who played Border u16 as well two years of first-team at Selborne College.
Still, in 2015 the Eastern Cape took possibly its biggest win to date, as they managed to keep some of the most talented and sought after prospects in the province. The likes of Junior Pokomela, Keanu Vers, Jeremy Ward, Athenkosi Mayinje (All Grey High), Tango Balekile (Selborne College and Border captain), and Lusanda Badiyana (Cambridge standout player). In fact, EP was in such a strong position, they could attract the likes of James Hall (Kearsney College) as well as Masikane Mazwi (Maritzburg College).
Those players would go on to form the core of what would prove to be a championship-winning team losing just once, to the Bulls u19 side, before they avenged their loss when it mattered the most with a 25-23 victory over the Tshwane-based side in the final. Essentially what this showed was the potential of the Eastern Cape should it have its house in order, as they cleaned up some of the biggest, most resourceful unions.
Who was at the helm starring the ship? Mzwandile Stick a local coach who was proving that local coaches can advance the careers of talented local players when backed with the right resources. Another young local coach who was proving his worth on the Border side of the province Phiwe Nomlomo had just been promoted to First Team backline coach at his alma mater Selborne College.
In fact, Nomlomo’s impact on the Selborne side was so apparent the school couldn’t keep him as the EP Kings came calling, and he was appointed EP Academy Head in 2016, replacing another talented local coach who was being rewarded for his efforts, with Stick joining Deon Davids in the Southern Kings coaching staff.
But perhaps the most significant thing that happened for the Eastern Cape during those two years is that their double victory in 2015 (keeping some of the province’s best talent as well as winning the u19 Championship), enticed and sent a strong statement of intent to some of the top talents particularly from the Selborne first team such as Lutho Selem, Thakgi Boloko, Michael Botha, and Daniel Voigt who would usually follow the likes of David Brits out of the province- to stay and believe that the resources and coaching in the province were of an adequate level to progress their careers.
Then in 2016 the likes of Pokomela, Ward, Balekile and Vers were rewarded for “trusting the local process” earning SA U20 World Cup selection. The victories were not limited to the junior structures only, however, as one of EP’s earliest victories in Sintu Manjezi, had ended the season as a Super Rugby player for his local side. The story of dreams coming true for the former St. Andrews College captain. A pat on the back to EP who had fended off hot interest from Western Province for his services.
They had nurtured one of their own and he, together with the SA U20 call up’s had signified a bright future ahead for Eastern Cape rugby, right? Wrong! Later that year I had been seeing that Manjezi was not playing for the EP Kings in the Currie Cup qualifiers anymore. So the one time I decide to text him “Bro, What’s happening are you injured?” his response will remain confidential but it will bring itself to the light later, as the lanky lock jetted off to Kimberley to try again.
In contrasting fashion, during this period I had finally secured the contact details and interview with the Eastern Cape “generational talent” Jho. In our conversations about his unsuccessful spell at the Bulls, he was keener on his new lease on life at EP than dwelling on a past he couldn’t change, and commendably blamed nobody for how things panned out in Tshwane (But we all knew the real reason and it starts with an ‘S’ and ends with the ‘m’). (Read his story here:https://theprincessay.wordpress.com/2016/11/05/ace-jho-my-best-is-yet-to-come-part-one/)
2017 would be the year for the seniors. It was truly the year that the Eastern Cape rugby ecosystem came to life and showed off. The Border region talents such as Makazole Mapimpi and Masixole Banda were called up to help the “bigger brother” the Southern Kings. Upon their arrival at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, they were met by some of the Border regions finest in Cloete, Andisa Ntsila, Lionel Cronje and Lukhanyo Am. Sandwiched in between those names was just the small matter that was St Andrews Old Boy Tyler Paul.
As the Southern Kings thrived there was a great reward for the likes of Ntsila, Mapimpi, Cloete, Am and Cronje who were selected for the South Africa A squad. Again, a great advert for Eastern Cape rugby and coaches being an adequate resource to advance the careers of some of the best talents. At this point, questions might have been asked as to why Manjezi decided to leave instead of sticking it out playing Supersport Rugby Challenge for EP while being on the Southern Kings radar.
Between late 2017 and 2018, the whole EP Academy collapsed! The Supersport Rugby Challenge side held on for a little longer before even it vanished into thin air. The Southern Kings lost almost all of their marquee players with the exception of Ntsila and were almost floating as a lone entity without a feeder system below it.
Jho’s optimism had been crushed, the best schoolboy rugby player the Border region had produced, and the man who won Craven Week player of the year as a grade 11 student, the Eastern Cape’s generational talent had given up on his rugby dream. The Eastern Cape generational talent had now told me, he is comfortable working his regular 9-5 and had absolutely no interest of a return, as I asked him about a last shot with his younger brother Somila Jho at Border.
But Border… Somila’s escape, itself could not escape financial troubles, as a brief return that yielded a bit of optimism was abruptly curtailed as the Bulldogs pulled out of the 2018 Supersport Rugby Challenge. What was most ironic about this, however, is that their Craven Week side was having their best tournament since the 2009 side. The team featuring a plethora of its own generational talents such as Jacques Goosen, Jarrod Taylor, Mnombo Zwelendeba, Sibabalwe Xamlashe and Mntungwa Mapantsela had claimed a few big scalps en route to finishing unbeaten.
Who was coaching those boys at school level? Nomlomo another talented causality from the EP collapse which saw the likes of Ward, Vers and Pokomela all find greener pastures. The Academy class of 2016 who all were touted to have some serious potential to become professional players had their dreams crushed, the likes of Harty and Domoney from earlier on found themselves back in East London taking up regular jobs. All of a sudden Manjezi looked like he had made the smart move huh?
Speaking of Manjezi he would go on to lead a resurgence of the Eastern Cape, OUTSIDE of the Eastern Cape as he lifted the Currie Cup trophy (Read his story here:https://theprincessay.wordpress.com/?s=Sintu) with other sons of the province Abongile Nonkontwana, Rabz Maxwane oh and…Junior Pokomela still remember him EP?
But behind the scenes, there was an unsung hero, one I had no idea about myself at the time. This man was quietly leading the recruitment of most of these names and putting the pieces together.
The person I’m referring to is Sino Ganto a phenomenally talented young coach, who deserved way more of the spotlight and praise for the work he did with the Cheetahs juniors and eventually seniors as part of the coaching staff that won them the Currie Cup. All of a sudden it makes sense why there was an increasingly growing contingent of Eastern Cape players of colour while he was at the Cheetahs, a coincidence that many have left since he has left? I’ll leave that to you to decide.
2019 also saw another strong Border Craven Week side led, by Nomlomo who then went even further by being named as SA Schools A coach after another phenomenal campaign as Selborne coach. Eastern Cape prodigal son and Sevens stalwart Vuyo Zangqa had also returned to the country and particularly the Southern Kings in this year.
He was fresh from his European exploits which would’ve given him a few luggage issues at the airport, travelling back with all the medals he had won in Germany. With all the head coach experience he had earned, he was ready to come back and grow rugby in his home province as an assistant coach at the Kings.
But of course, the highlight of 2019 for the Eastern Cape rugby fraternity was seeing one of its sons Siya Kolisi lifting the Webb Ellis Trophy in Japan, after two of its other sons in Am and Mapimpi, played a pivotal role in the country’s first-ever Rugby World Cup Final try. Oh and remember the coach with the annoying Walkie Talkie sitting above me on that stand on a cold evening in Grahamstown? Well, he was a World Cup-winning assistant coach now. Remember them EP?
In 2020 Nomlomo would get his just rewards as he returned to the Sharks fold, where he was an academy player, as Skills Specialist. The bulk of his 2019 Selborne side, a talented local bunch followed a local coach they trust, to help advance their careers at an organized union in a different province. Where were the Southern Kings to perform another 2015 stunt with the local generation they needed to keep the most?
Can you imagine if the Kings signed even half of the Border 2018 Craven Week side like they did with the 2014 Eastern Cape talent. Could they have replicated the U19 Championship winning feat and subsequently attract Nomlomo again with the 2019 bunch? Well, because the province’s rugby is in sixes and sevens the only answer we left with is a question, who knows?
2020’s parting gift to the Eastern Cape was claiming two scalps and those were the Southern Kings franchise as well as the Border Bulldogs. Both those unions suffered at the hands of liquidation, and so did the families who relied on income from those unions. The EP Elephants did manage to rise from the ashes and briefly offer the province hope in 2021, but flattered to deceive.
In 2021, the Eastern Cape continues to produce premium talent, which was highlighted with nine of its players making the SA Rugby Academy squad. Earlier in the year I even put out a list of 15 Eastern Cape-born school leavers who had signed for unions, with some of them having long left the Eastern Cape and matriculated elsewhere already.
As unfortunate as it may sound, like the 2009 golden generation of Cloete, Jho, Kobese, Gwampi, Sabbagh, September and Gwampi, not all of those boy’s will eventually make it professionally. Just like the likes of Harty and Domoney they might have to come back and work a regular 9-5, because their home unions are either non-existent (Border Bulldogs) or unambitious in their existence (EP Elephants).
In 2021 Nomlomo has gained yet another promotion and is now a part of the Sharks senior side. Zangqa has taken his talents back to Russia, with their Sevens league benefiting from the expertise of a son of a province that arguably need them the most. Sino Ganto is sitting at home with an encyclopedia of rugby knowledge and proven coaching talents, ironically in his home province which seems to be devoid of such qualities the most. And Stick continues to be the province’s flagship coach as he prepares for the British and Irish Lions Tour.
What do all of those coaches have in common? They all have a proven track record working with and developing young and raw talent. They know and understand what winning is, and yet their province who can’t buy a win at any level right now is not encouraging them in any way, with a pathway in which they can assist it to advance.
In 2021 the WSU All Blacks finished runners up in the Varsity Shield against all odds and the type of quality and potential in that side may now go to waste, as the home unions are seemingly not in a position to play their part. What is ironic about that? That team depicts the exact attributes the above-mentioned coaches would absolutely thrive with. Imagine how many Mapimpi’s and Am’s could emerge from that bunch? What’s the difference? Back then the unions were alive and structured enough to give players a chance at a career.
Eastern Cape rugby powers that be, you have failed your province. Eastern Cape rugby powers that be, you have successfully emptied your side of the country’s rugby breadbasket. Eastern Cape rugby powers that be, you have failed Jho, Sabbagh, Gwampi, September, Harty, Domoney and all the other talented players from the province who would’ve wanted to either push on or return and revitalize their rugby careers at home.
More important than that right now, is what are you going to do about the future generations who might suffer the same fate? Are you going to let the classes of 2018-2020 give up on their dreams if it doesn’t work out at their current unions and resort to a 9-5 at the age of 21-22 when maybe all they needed was a fair chance?
As it stands, the ‘Absa’ stadium doesn’t even resemble a stadium in fact it even lost its sponsor over the years, and now more tragically Border has allowed itself to lose not only its talent but its existence too. Eastern Cape rugby powers that be, when can your talented sons ever trust you to do the right thing?
Maybe the cry in the past was that, you’re producing the players but not the coaches. Now you’re producing both some of the best young players and young coaches who are making a winning impact everywhere except where they would want to contribute the most, and all that is required from you, is that 2015-2017 ambition in existence. There might never be a better incentive for it, than right now!