What the Heineken Cup can of­fer SA play­ers and fans

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - SPORT - JON HAR­RIS

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.

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