A remedy for Heyneke’s headache
Player movement is nothing new in rugby’s professional era, but within a South African context it’s most concerning that a high number of our top-performing players are heading abroad.
First it was the lure of the Pound in the UK that led local players to ditch the Green and Gold. Then it was France, which now boasts one of the richest leagues in world rugby. Most recently the Japanese league has poached some of our most stellar Springboks.
In Japan, it’s become a case of companies competing against each other to bring the biggest and best players to their respective clubs. In pure monetary terms, South Africa simply cannot match the figures on offer.
In my opinion, many of our top players have become mercenaries. By heading abroad they are all but waving goodbye to their Springbok careers, which greatly weakens the pool of players available to Heyneke Meyer.
Aside from the small fortune that players stand to earn in the Land of the Rising Sun, they’ve clearly analysed their options and have concluded that playing in Japan represents a real bargain. It’s big money for virtually five months’ work.
The question on everyone’s lips would then be: is the volume of rugby being played in the southern hemisphere a contributing factor in chasing our players away? There is definitely more rugby being played now than there was in the past, but I don’t believe the situation has become unmanageable. Southern -emisphere rugby players certainly play fewer matches than their counterparts in the northern hemisphere.
JP Pietersen is the latest high-profile Springbok to say sayonara to South African rugby. At the age of 26, Pietersen is still a player very much in his prime and to be honest, SA rugby needs his services.
In Australia and New Zealand their policy is to steadfastly refuse to select a player plying his trade abroad. However, I do not believe this would ever be the answer in a South African context.
Many will suggest that this remains the correct policy as it’s only fair to reward loyalty, but I believe there is a simpler solution. As professional rugby has become a global business, I believe that all Heyneke needs to say is that all South Africans, irrespective of where they play, will be up for national selection.
In my view, that’s the best solution to the problem because the Japanese clubs will then be far more reluctant to sign top South African players as it will effectively lower the return on their investment. For example, if a big-name Springbok injures himself on international duty and is subsequently sidelined for three months – it simply equates to bad business.
With this policy in place, players would then have to officially announce their unavailability for national duty, which is the route Jaque Fourie has followed. He has made himself unavailable for Springbok selection for at least the next two seasons. It’s a scenario much like in modern football where players often choose club over country.
The reality, however, is that as things stand, we are losing our top players to Japan, which underlines the current crisis in world rugby. In pure rugby terms, it’s an absurd position we find ourselves in.
Heyneke Meyer will be concerned by the broader picture.
The one silver lining, however, is that talented youngsters are set to be given opportunities to stake their claim at international level much earlier than they might have expected.
For example, IRB Junior World Cup-winner Pieter-Steph du Toit may well find himself playing lock for the senior side in the absence of Andries Bekker and Juandre Kruger.
The 20-year-old is one of a number of young players who have impressed in Super Rugby this season. He is extremely physical yet mobile and his strongest suit is his work-rate.
One could argue this: wouldn’t blooding a number of youngsters be a good thing with the 2015 Rugby World Cup in mind? For the long term most certainly, but in the short term, I believe South African rugby is really under pressure.
In my view, it’s critical to retain a core group of experienced players – history has shown that’s how World Cups are won.