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Welcome back, Fourie

A holiday on the Transkei coast can take you into a time-warp, so it has taken a while for me to catch up with the issue that was apparently made of the number of overseas-based players in Heyneke Meyer’s latest Springbok squad.

With South Africans naturally wanting to see the best local players playing here for the provinces and franchises, it is understandable that the South African rugby bosses have tried to deter movement away from our shores by placing limits, sometimes official and other times not, on the number of “expatriates” that the Boks can field at any one time.

Keeping South African rugby within South Africa strong has to be a consideration, and it obviously won’t serve the game here to have all our top players based overseas. At the same time though, I find it hard to agree with the much stricter line adopted in the Antipodean countries, where players playing in the northern hemisphere or Japan are not considered for the All Blacks or the Wallabies.

The game is now professional, and players should have a right to practise their profession wherever it suits them without it impacting on their potential to play for their national team. Professionalism in rugby is still fairly new, much more so than cricket, but if South Africa had been playing test cricket 35 years ago, I doubt very much that Barry Richards would have been excluded from national consideration because he was playing Sheffield Shield cricket in Australia.

Leaving Richards out when he was in his pomp would have been counter-productive to the South African team’s chances of winning, and would have been a case of the selectors cutting off their noses to spite their face.

But then Richards had been playing senior cricket for more than a decade. He had paid his dues to the country that had produced him and nurtured his exquisite talent. Had he decided to move away from Natal when he was much younger it might have been a different story, and perhaps South African rugby should introduce a formal selectivity to their line on overseas-based players.

Bryan Habana going overseas to Toulon after playing test rugby for the Boks since 2004 should perhaps be looked at differently from, say, if Eben Etzebeth, who made his debut only last year and is only just starting out on his third decade of life, wanted to do it.

Habana, in his last few games for the Springboks, showed he is back to his best form after his slump of 2010/2011, and when in his last interview before leaving the Cape he pronounced himself proudly South African (which no-one would ever have doubted anyway) and professed a strong desire to still wear the green and gold, that was good enough for me.

Just so long as Habana retains his form, he should continue playing for the Boks regardless of where he is based. He has paid his dues to South African rugby, is needed by the Boks, and is now at a stage of his career where he should be looking to cash in on his talent. As far as possible, the national coach should be duty-bound to select the best available team – and Habana is available.

And now that Fourie du Preez, the latest “foreign” addition to the national squad, is available again, that is even more of a no-brainer. Apologies to Habana, who won the IRB World Player of the Year award after the 2007 World Cup, but in my view Du Preez was the best and most influential player at that tournament.

Habana scored the tries, but it was Du Preez’s brilliance in playing the role of play-maker as a scrumhalf that created so many of the opportunities that the wing capitalised on, and if my memory serves me correctly, Habana said as much after he received his award.

Du Preez is still young enough to be playing for the Boks. He didn’t enjoy a great World Cup in 2011, but then it looked as though he was struggling with a shoulder injury that just never had a chance to clear up in the continuously bruising schedule he found himself confronted with when he played for the Bulls.

He was honest enough when he left for Japan to say that the decision was based around a need to get away from the intensity of the Sanzar competitions and schedules. He has admitted in a newspaper interview subsequently that he would have retired by now if he had carried on playing Super Rugby after 2011.

Andries Bekker, the Stormers and Bok lock, listed a desire to prolong his career as his main reason for going to Japan – and I’m hoping that like Du Preez, he will be back in 2015 to challenge for a World Cup place. A refreshed and rejuvenated Bekker would certainly be a boost to the Bok chances.

But Du Preez’s presence, provided his re-exposure to Bok rugby over the next while shows that he has retained his abliities, will be even more of a fillip to the South Africans, who aren’t exactly overly blessed at the moment with scrumhalves capable of controlling a game like Du Preez can.

Maybe Saru need to look at a potential youth limit such as the one I referred to earlier, but when it comes to their overall policy of being more lenient in allowing the national coach to choose his best team than is the case in Australia and New Zealand, this is one that Saru have got right.

Both Habana and Du Preez should play for the Boks for as long as they remain available and good enough.

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