What the Heineken Cup can offer SA players and fans
THE Heineken Cup is into Round 4 and has been an enthralling contest so far. The quality and pace have been attractive and fast, delivering some close results, including two at-the-death victories by Munster courtesy of drop goals by Ireland veteran, Ronan O’gara.
The tournament has great local interest, with more than just a smattering of South Africans playing for various clubs in Europe.
Twenty-four teams contest the pool stages, with the winners of each group plus the two best secondplaced teams progressing to the quarter-finals.
Held from October to May each season, representation by country varies and it is clearly the Northern Hemisphere’s premier competition. Participation garners prestige and boosts income for clubs involved.
Respectable performances affect everything from sponsorships and merchandise sales to match attendances and it is therefore no surprise that clubs utilise the exchange rate to bolster their depth with southern hemisphere players.
The wisdom of importing talent as opposed to developing one’s own will be forever debated. As an exporter of talent from a South African perspective, there are perhaps three categories: developing, peak, and winding down.
The developing talent category is populated by young players who combine their wanderlust with the passion for rugby and join up with a club in Europe, honing their skills and qualifying to play international rugby for their adopted nations.
So many come to mind, Pieter de Villiers and Mike Catt two of the more renowned of the group. Jake Boer was recognised as one of the top flankers in English rugby, yet never donned a Springbok nor England shirt.
The players in this group are the least measurable in terms of lost value to South African rugby as so many variables come into play.
Would they have developed and achieved under the stringent South African rugby systems? Was their development and rise to prominence a result of their ability to flourish away from the systems which make or break a player in this country?
The second category of South African rugby export is those who accept offers while in their prime.
Players coming to mind immediately are Brian Mujati, BJ Botha, Wian du Preez, Richard Strauss and two a little older than these, Daan Human and Percy Montgomery.
Mujati has been an outstanding prop in Europe for the last few years. His technique has improved, and like BJ Botha, his presence in anchoring the scrum is immense.
Underfoot conditions in Europe are far softer and a prop’s technique has to adapt to facilitate low body position with less leverage.
Both of these young men have adapted well and should ease the concerns of depth in this position for the Boks.
Of the two older examples, Montgomery returned to South Africa a better, more mature player and Daan Human has been outstanding in France since his departure a number of years ago.
Opponents of player migration would cite the loss of these players to the Springbok team.
Eligibility for the Springboks is all but forfeited when playing outside South Africa. In the final analysis, this appears to be the correct stance.
There are so many fine players plying their trade overseas and the cup still runs over here. We have enough talent to go around.
Frans Steyn is a prime example of how Springbok rugby benefits from overseas participation.
At Racing Metro he has been allowed to show his flair.
When allowed to express this talent, those around Steyn in the Springbok side flourished as space around him opened. Would this flair have been suppressed had he stayed in South Africa?
The third category of overseas player is the Golden Egg hunter, the one boosting his retirement fund after completing his international career.
Unfairly derided for banking this last opportunity, these players remain sought after as their value to clubs in ways more than playing is vast.
They fill mentor, leadership and analysis roles, benefiting the club in areas wider than on the pitch. John Smit, Conrad Jantjes and Pedrie Wannenburg come to mind.
The biggest winner in this migration of players is the spectator.
The Heineken Cup is a fine example of how different styles and influences are changing the European game (that of the Home Union outfits to be more exact).
Influenced by playing conditions, the style of the “English game” was defence orientated, with a systematic erosion of territory to convert penalties to points. Tries were scarce as soft, wet pitches, combined with stifling defence systems made breaching of the lines difficult.
Yet a feature of the Heineken Cup so far has been a faster paced attacking game, highlighted by angular running, scissor passing and targeting of the gap between players, which creates overlaps and scoring opportunities.
Indeed rugby has never been more of a global game and as player migration continues, international support for teams in other countries will grow.
Here in South Africa, we lean towards following the European game because of time scheduling and, with so many of our homegrown boys featuring, it allows the South African fan an 11-month window of rugby participation.
SHINING: Brian Mujati, who has enjoyed success overseas, breaks through to score for Northampton Saints against London Wasps recently.