Is this the tipping point?
The decision by top Springbok locks Andries Bekker and Juandre Kruger to pursue their careers abroad may not seem like much in the greater scope of things, but it may just be the signal that the South African Rugby Union (Saru) has officially lost the war on selection.
Rugby is, after all, a professional game and nowadays the dollar signs rule more than just television deals. Interesting contracts are being signed across the globe, with the All Blacks recognising the need for a sabbatical for their prize players rather than losing them to European rugby forever.
The South Sea Islands already lost that battle a long time ago, so much so that New Zealand has become almost a feeder for their sides now, and Samoans in Auckland now outnumber their counterparts on the island.
But still, despite some examples here and there, South African rugby – and the Springboks – have been mostly unaffected by the global migration of players, with most still deciding to ply their trade in Super Rugby before finally heading abroad later in their careers.
That all seems to have changed.
The decision by Bok coach Heyneke Meyer to look to Northern Hemisphere based players on last year’s end-of-year tour seems to have swung the pendulum and if the information I have is correct, then players are no longer considering a local career as the road to Springbok rugby.
A month or so ago I wrote an article on this, quoting Saru CEO Jurie Roux as reiterating that the national body’s position hasn’t changed, and that local players will always have first option in selection. Saru will continue to put pressure on Springbok selectors to choose locally before going abroad but, in essence, the battle has already been lost.
Talk to any player agent, and they will tell you it isn’t necessary for players to play Absa Currie Cup anymore, as the Vodacom Super Rugby season has become so long that it no longer makes any sense. Those with good Springbok careers will carry on into the Castle Rugby Championship and not see a day’s Currie Cup action.
And to stay in the game local franchises are being stretched even further to try and compete with the overseas market.
It isn’t surprising to hear one coastal franchise has been offering contracts that exclude any Currie Cup play to their senior players to try and get them to stay in South Africa. Offers from Japan are just as attractive for top players as the money is exceptionally good, the workload is lighter and they can be back for a shorter stretch of Super Rugby and still challenge for national honours.
Just how good is it really, you ask? Ask Jaque Fourie, who turned down a certain spot in the Bok team last year as his club didn’t want him to play international rugby. Money talks, as they say…
Now the news of Kruger and Bekker heading abroad may not seem like much, but consider the current dearth of No 5 locks in this country and the picture becomes clearer. Other than Franco van der Merwe there are few players putting up their hands in the position and the two certainties will both be playing abroad.
There is a genuine worry that this trend will continue as players realise they can still make the Bok squad without having to face a long Super Rugby schedule, and earn good money while they are away.
The South African Rugby Players Association (Sarpa) have already been on record saying the unions cannot compete financially with the French and Japanese clubs, and while Super Rugby may be a lure for some time still, it won’t be if the competition is continually expanded at the current rate.
And with the Home Unions – and Ireland and Scotland in particular – stepping up their campaign to lure top young talent north with the promise of international rugby in future, more young players below the international level will also leave.
Already we have seen the likes of CJ Stander, Josh Strauss, WP Nel, Danie Poolman and Quinn Roux head north to take up such offers, and most, if not all, will be playing international rugby for other countries once their residency terms run their course.
Of course, Saru should be congratulated here in making the Baby Boks (under-20s) their official second team, cutting off any players who play in the IRB Junior World Championship from taking up offers to play for other countries, but there will always be one or two players who slip the net.
So what is the answer to it all? Accept a global game and allow the talent to be drained away? Or simply allow it to continue until we get to a point where the Bok coach is hampered in his selections and the national team suffers?
Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be an easy answer, but some clarity over the situation, and a modern, professional policy driven by the International Rugby Board (IRB) would be very welcome, even though it is unlikely to happen.
The IRB is so intent on growing the game that they welcome strategies of strengthening younger nations in the game, and therefore will turn a blind eye.
With that in mind, the best Saru can currently do is to tread carefully and hope for the best. The game is going to go global. Unless there is a massive turnaround in the value of the rand, local players will continue to be lured abroad.
Bok selection may not be the carrot it used to be as compared to the riches of modern rugby and this is a problem that needs to be addressed by the IRB.
Until then we will see the gradual trickle of players overseas until one day the entire Bok team will be based abroad.
If anyone out there has an answer to counter this, I’m sure Saru, Sarpa and all local rugby fans will be waiting with bated breath to hear…
To continue the conversation, follow Brenden on twitter at @brendennel