November 24 2013 at 12:43pm By Lungani Zama
It’s an interesting question. If South African rugby were to close its doors on foreign-based players, as it has threatened to do in the past, how hard hit would our national team be?
As it stands, Heyneke Meyer has shown an increasing dependence on our exports – a stance which can be interpreted in two ways. His theory is that the experience that the likes of Bakkies Botha and Fourie du Preez possess should be milked to its full potential.
But, there is another, more cynical view on Meyer’s readiness to look beyond this country’s borders when he has to name his squads. Is the Bok coach losing faith in our domestic product, thus happily indulging those players who want to have their foreign cake and eat it?
There used to be a time when plying one’s trade overseas was a silent admission that the end of the road was nigh. No one begrudged the likes of Victor Matfield the chance to earn some easy euros, after years of sterling work for province and country.
The same went for those like Schalk Brits, whose international ambitions were blocked by the wealth of talent that South Africa had in his position. The same went for players such as Francois Louw and Joe van Niekerk, who has gone on to achieve a cult following in France.
Louw, of course, forced his way back into the fold by weight of his outstanding performances, and the fact that Father Time is still in his favour. But he has also been indulged by a system that is unsure how to treat the expat problem.
The SA Rugby Union (Saru) realises it cannot compete with the lucrative salaries on offer in Europe and Japan, and the open-door policy has resulted in a free-for-all.
Bryan Habana and Morne Steyn are the latest to agree to deals, no doubt with the quiet assurance of the Bok coach that they do not risk international alienation.
But how many more will leave these shores, knowing that the Bok door is still ajar?
Saru recently announced a list of 10 players that were offered deals until the 2015 World Cup. Their immediate future is secure, but what of their colleagues, who may feel the urge to taste the French wine and sample Japanese fare, as they fill their pockets?
The crossroads is rapidly approaching, because the impact can now be seen at Super Rugby and at Currie Cup level. The standard of rugby being played by a group of teams that is constantly having to replace experience with exuberance is being shown, and the spectators are voting with their feet.
At times of strife, we often look to our bench-markers, New Zealand. The All Blacks are on an incredible run, likely to stretch to 14 games unbeaten this year. It’s a first in international rugby, capping an immense run of form that has seen them move streets ahead of the pack.
At the core of New Zealand’s excellence is a freakish conveyor belt of great players. But, just as important, is a no-compromise policy on players staying in the country to be eligible for the world champions. For them, the integrity of the All Black jersey is placed beyond instant riches.
The New Zealand Rugby Union is also aware of the market and players enjoy salaries that compare with some of the best earners in Europe. The top players in the All Black squad earn more than R5 million a year, before endorsements.
Habana is earning that kind of money in France now, but the reality is that the top Springboks currently earn less than half of that. Somewhere, Saru needs to meet players in the middle and protect their best assets.
The sabbaticals that the likes of Dan Carter and Richie McCaw enjoy are also part of looking after players. No fan will begrudge a Bismarck du Plessis resting, on full pay, for six months, if it will aid the Springboks’ World Cup plans.
But, the growing trend of turning a blind eye to players getting their bread buttered abroad and still donning the Bok jersey is one that Saru will have to address.
One wonders how many more of the “Locally Based XV” will be in the “Overseas Based XV” in a year’s time.
OVERSEAS BASED XV: 15 Zane Kirchner (Ireland), 14 JP Pietersen (Japan), 13 Jaque Fourie (Japan), 12 Peter Grant (Japan), 11 Bryan Habana (France), 10 Morne Steyn (France), 9 Fourie du Preez (Japan), 8 Joe van Niekerk (France), 7 Francois Louw (England), 6 CJ Stander (Ireland), 5 Andries Bekker (Japan), 4 Bakkies Botha (France), 3 WP Nel (Scotland), 2 Schalk Brits (England), 1 Gurthro Steenkamp (France).