How­ever chal­leng­ing it is keep­ing play­ers in New Zealand, it is noth­ing com­pared with the trou­bles South Africa is fac­ing.

WHAT­EVER PEO­PLE THINK ABOUT THE PLAYER DRAIN IN NEW ZEALAND, THINGS ARE DEF­I­NITELY A LOT WORSE IN SOUTH AFRICA. SA RUGBY MAG­A­ZINE’S JON CARDINELLI RE­VEALS THE REA­SONS FOR SOUTH AFRICA’S PLAYER DRAIN AND WHY TAL­ENTED YOUNG­STERS MAY CON­TINUE TO MOVE ABROAD.

NZ Rugby World - - Contents -

THE FLIP SIDE IS THAT THEY MAY BE DENY­ING THEM­SELVES THE OP­POR­TU­NITY OF FUL­FILL­ING A DREAM AND BE­COM­ING A SPRING­BOK. THAT’S SOME­THING YOU KEEP FOR LIFE, NOT JUST FOR A FEW YEARS IN YOUR TWEN­TIES.’ JURIE ROUX

Con­sider what was said by SA Rugby CEO Jurie Roux in the af­ter­math of the 2023 World Cup bid an­nounce­ment last Novem­ber. The French del­e­ga­tion cel­e­brated wildly af­ter se­cur­ing the rights to host the global tour­na­ment, while the de­jected South Africans were left to count the costs of a failed cam­paign.

“When you host a World Cup, there is an as­pi­ra­tion plat­form,” Roux said. “On top of that is a fi­nan­cial plat­form that cre­ates enough rev­enue that can fur­ther your de­vel­op­ment plans, and maybe stem the out­flow of play­ers [leav­ing South Africa] in search of the euro, pound, yen and dol­lar. We will have to face things in a dif­fer­ent way af­ter this re­sult.”

Con­sider the state of the na­tion at the time of Roux’s state­ment. South African rugby ap­peared to be at its low­est point, with all lo­cal teams [ bar the Lions] bat­tling to com­pete at Su­per Rugby level and the Spring­boks lan­guish­ing at fifth place in the World Rugby rank­ings. The strug­gle to re­tain ta­lent – young and ex­pe­ri­enced – was high­lighted by the fact that more than 400 South Africans were ply­ing their trade at over­seas clubs.

Roux, how­ever, sug­gested that South African rugby would sus­tain fur­ther blows to its player base in the wake of the 2023 World Cup bid de­ci­sion. As bad as things were, they had the po­ten­tial to get a lot worse.

In 2008, there were 235 South Africans abroad, with 91 per cent of that group spread across Eng­land, France and Italy. The over­all num­ber of play­ers mi­grat­ing to Europe has swelled sig­nif­i­cantly over the en­su­ing 10 years, as has the South African con­tin­gent based in the Celtic na­tions and Ja­pan [see side­bar].

In 2017, SA Rugby listed 332 play­ers at over­seas clubs, al­though that did not in­clude those com­pet­ing in the United States and other smaller leagues around Europe.

Money still mat­ters

SA Rugby mag­a­zine ap­proached Roux for com­ment on this alarm­ing in­crease in de­par­tures over the past decade. The SA Rugby CEO re­it­er­ates that money is the pri­mary rea­son so many South Africans take up con­tracts abroad.

“We’ve done our re­search on the topic. The main rea­son for that growth in de­par­tures is the ex­change rate be­tween the rand and the re­spec­tive cur­ren­cies,” he says. “When a player gets a great of­fer from abroad, we can’t com­pete with the money and the op­por­tu­ni­ties to play in an­other coun­try. There are tax and other ben­e­fits too, as well as the lure of res­i­dency and pass­ports from other coun­tries.

“We have to box clever,” Roux of­fers when asked if SA Rugby has for­mu­lated any strate­gies to ad­dress the prob­lem. “By get­ting the Chee­tahs and Kings to play in the Pro14, we have given 60 of our lo­cal pro­fes­sional play­ers an op­por­tu­nity to ex­pe­ri­ence a new com­pe­ti­tion, in new coun­tries, against new op­po­nents.

“We prob­a­bly also have to look at the wage bill of our pro­fes­sional play­ers in South Africa, from Un­der 19 up­wards, and find ways of re­tain­ing the best of the best, as well as a strong core of play­ers for our eight fran­chises. But at the same time we must en­sure the top Spring­boks earn salaries here that are on par with what they will get play­ing else­where.”

Be­fore tak­ing on the top job at USA Rugby, Gary Gold was an as­sis­tant coach at

the Storm­ers and Boks, and head coach at Lon­don Ir­ish, New­cas­tle, Bath, the Ko­belco Steel­ers, Sharks and Worces­ter War­riors.

Hav­ing seen so many play­ers leave South African teams to take up lu­cra­tive con­tracts abroad, and hav­ing been on the other side of the equa­tion when coach­ing in coun­tries like Eng­land, Ja­pan and the US, Gold is well placed to com­ment on the is­sue.

“The fi­nan­cial fac­tor is mas­sive,” he states. “When I was at the Sharks [in 2015 and 2016], we wanted to keep [se­nior Bok for­wards] Jan­nie and Bis­marck du Plessis.

“The re­al­ity of the sit­u­a­tion was that the French clubs were of­fer­ing more than dou­ble what we could af­ford. When I was at Worces­ter, guys like Wy­nand Olivier and Fran­cois Hougaard were ob­vi­ously get­ting a lot more than they could have got back home at the Bulls.

“The money is the main rea­son for play­ers head­ing abroad. Sadly, there is a per­cep­tion among some peo­ple that the ‘quota sys­tem’ is go­ing to stop top play­ers from get­ting op­por­tu­ni­ties in South Africa.

“I don’t agree with that at all. It’s a poor ex­cuse, but as I said, it is sadly a per­cep­tion. I have spo­ken to peo­ple who are dis­ap­pointed that their son hasn’t been capped yet – and this is at young ages such as 19, 20 and 21. The par­ents want the player to ex­plore the op­tion of qual­i­fy­ing for a for­eign na­tion and earn­ing some good money abroad.”

Young guns tar­get­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties

More young­sters are head­ing abroad than was the case 10 years ago, some for po­si­tions in ju­nior teams.

Ir­ish gi­ants Mun­ster came in for crit­i­cism re­cently when they signed two South African teenagers, prop Keynon Knox and util­ity back Matt Moore, to their academy.

Knox cap­tained Michael­house in 2017 and rep­re­sented KwaZulu-Natal at Craven Week level, while Moore played for East­ern Prov­ince Coun­try Districts in the Un­der 18 tour­na­ment.

Some Ir­ish pun­dits feel the club should have in­vested in lo­cal play­ers. In South Africa, the con­cern is that too many play­ers are ex­plor­ing sim­i­lar op­tions, with the ul­ti­mate aim of rep­re­sent­ing a test side other than the Boks.

“Younger play­ers head abroad for nu­mer­ous rea­sons, two of which are money and ex­pe­ri­ences,” notes Roux. “We need to en­sure they get the best op­por­tu­ni­ties and the best coach­ing here, though. The flip side is that they may be deny­ing them­selves the op­por­tu­nity of ful­fill­ing a dream and be­com­ing a Spring­bok. That’s some­thing you keep for life, not just for a few years in your twen­ties.”

Heyneke Meyer says the rugby world has changed a great deal since he was at the helm of the Bulls in the early- and mid2000s.

“It was a chal­lenge to lose ex­pe­ri­enced play­ers like Vic­tor Mat­field, but you only had to worry about that happening to­wards the end of the player’s ca­reer,” says the for­mer Bulls and Bok men­tor.

“Nowa­days, you have to worry about ev­ery­one go­ing abroad, from the older guys to those in their prime, to the young­sters in the ju­nior teams.

“I was able to keep a lot of promis­ing young­sters at the Bulls. That al­lowed me to build up some depth and a suc­ces­sion plan. Nowa­days, the young­sters know they can get five times the money play­ing abroad. If they are not in the start­ing side or in the main squad, that can be an at­trac­tive op­tion.

“It’s a very dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tion for coaches try­ing to build some depth and for SA Rugby, which may want to build some qual­ity in depth across the fran­chises to make sure the Boks are strong.”

Again, the over­seas clubs ben­e­fit in this sce­nario, while the South African teams and, ul­ti­mately, the na­tional side are weak­ened.

“A lot of the play­ers also move for the op­por­tu­nity to play test rugby,” Meyer points out. “I was hon­est with WP Nel when I was Bok coach. I told him that he wouldn’t start at tight­head prop for the Boks if he stayed in South Africa [the na­tional side was spoiled for choice at No 3 at the time]. Now he is play­ing for Scot­land.

“You can’t blame the player for want­ing to play test rugby. For a long time, you only had to spend three years in the coun­try to

WHEN YOU THINK ABOUT IT, WHERE ARE THE COUN­TRIES THAT HAVE A CEN­TRAL CON­TRACT­ING SYS­TEM ON THE WORLD RUGBY TEST RANK­INGS? AT NO 1, 2 AND 3.’ HEYNEKE MEYER

qual­ify for the test side [the new World Rugby qual­i­fi­ca­tion pe­riod of five years will come into ef­fect in 2020], and so for guys who knew that they weren’t in line to start for the Boks, this was the best route to the top.

“South Africa has some of the best ju­nior struc­tures in the world,” Meyer adds. “The prob­lem is that the world has got a lot smaller. Scouts come over to watch our play­ers com­pet­ing in Craven Week, and at the acad­e­mies, and in the Un­der 19 and Un­der 20 pro­vin­cial com­pe­ti­tions, but they don’t re­ally need to.

“Tech­nol­ogy be­ing what it is nowa­days, play­ers and agents can cut their own videos and send them to prospec­tive clubs. Some of the school games are on TV. Over­seas scouts have ac­cess to a lot more in­for­ma­tion.”

South Africa has never been short of young ta­lent. Ev­ery year, we see new play­ers mak­ing their mark in the Var­sity Cup, the Cur­rie Cup and even Su­per Rugby. Gold feels that South Africa re­tains enough of its young ta­lent.

The prob­lem arises when play­ers build up some ex­pe­ri­ence at Su­per Rugby and test levels and then opt to fur­ther their ca­reers over­seas. South Africa cer­tainly can’t af­ford to have a whole host of th­ese de­ci­sion-mak­ers play­ing abroad and not in the lo­cal tour­na­ments [see side­bar].

“Look at the half­back prob­lems South Africa have had over the past cou­ple of years, and look at who we have play­ing abroad,” says Gold. “Scrum-halves like Cobus Reinach, Fran­cois Hougaard and Faf de Klerk – three Boks – as well as an­other ex­pe­ri­enced play­erin Nic Groom are play­ing in Eng­land. That highlights a player drain as far as a spe­cific po­si­tion is con­cerned.

“Fly-half was an is­sue when Han­dré

Pol­lard got in­jured in 2016, as the Boks only had El­ton Jan­tjies to fall back on [Pat Lam­bie moved to France af­ter his in­jury].”

The Ja­panese catch-22

The num­ber of South Africans com­pet­ing in Ja­pan’s Top League has grown from four in 2008 to 40 in 2017.

SA Rugby and the fran­chises have played a key role in this de­vel­op­ment, urg­ing lo­cal play­ers to spend half the year with a Su­per Rugby side and the other in Ja­pan in lieu of ac­cept­ing a lu­cra­tive of­fer from clubs in the United King­dom and Europe.

The down­side, how­ever, is that Boks who di­vide their time be­tween South Africa and Ja­pan are not avail­able for ev­ery test in a sea­son. More con­cern­ing yet is the num­ber of in­juries that are sus­tained, many of them fa­tigue-re­lated, while on club duty in Ja­pan.

In­deed, Pol­lard suf­fered one of his more se­ri­ous in­juries while play­ing in the Top League early in 2016. “The Ja­panese model has its chal­lenges, but it also pro­vides an op­por­tu­nity for our play­ers to make some money abroad with­out be­ing to­tally lost to the South African game,” says Roux. “We have to man­age this care­fully, though. When the play­ers sign con­tracts with the Ja­panese clubs, they know what they are com­mit­ting to. Al­though there has been the odd is­sue with avail­abil­ity, it hasn’t hap­pened too much to be a ma­jor con­cern at this stage.” Gold and Meyer have marked the im­pact of this op­tion. There are some pros, but they do not out­weigh the cons. Says Gold: “In one sense, Ja­pan has been a life­line for South African rugby. Take Philip van der Walt and An­dré Ester­huizen, for ex­am­ple, play­ers who aren’t Boks, but may have been lost to Europe if not for their dual con­tracts with the Sharks and their Ja­panese clubs. “I was in­volved in that con­tract­ing process when I was at the Sharks. At that stage, we felt it was a win-win, as the play­ers could earn enough to keep them in South Africa for Su­per Rugby. It also saved the Sharks a bit of money, as they didn’t have to pay those play­ers dur­ing the Cur­rie Cup. “Where it be­comes prob­lem­atic is when guys like Philip and An­dré re­turn from Ja­pan and then go straight back into Su­per Rugby, with­out much of a break. I re­mem­ber Ryan Kankowski mak­ing the point af­ter four con­sec­u­tive years in Ja­pan. He said he felt com­pletely drained. “An­other is­sue is when Spring­boks like War­ren White­ley and El­ton Jan­tjies take up th­ese dual con­tracts in­stead of Euro­pean con­tracts,” Gold adds. “Ja­panese clubs want their top play­ers to be avail­able in June and July, and again over Novem­ber. Those are ob­vi­ously times when the Boks will need play­ers like War­ren and El­ton in tow [for the June tests and end-of-year tour].” Meyer ac­knowl­edges the chal­lenges fac­ing SA Rugby and lo­cal coaches, who may want to keep a top player in the coun­try. In the end, how­ever, th­ese par­ties may be putting the player at risk and even lim­it­ing what the in­di­vid­ual can achieve on the test stage. “A rugby player can’t play three years with­out a break,” says Meyer. “When I was at the Boks, we asked the fran­chises to rest cer­tain play­ers dur­ing the Su­per Rugby sea­son. That only pro­vides the player in ques­tion with a men­tal break, though. It’s not a phys­i­cal break. That player can’t go on to play most of the Su­per Rugby tour­na­ment, most of the tests for the Boks, a full sea­son in Ja­pan, and then come back for a one- or two-week break be­fore the next Su­per Rugby sea­son. Cen­tral con­tract­ing al­lows you to look af­ter the play­ers.

“When you think about it, where are the coun­tries that have a cen­tral con­tract­ing sys­tem on the World Rugby test rank­ings? At No 1, 2 and 3.

“New Zealand’s elite play­ers have a long break af­ter the end-of-year tour. Their Su­per Rugby teams start slowly as a re­sult, but get fit­ter and stronger as the year pro­gresses. Ed­die Jones has made a big thing about con­di­tion­ing and man­ag­ing a larger Eng­land squad. Even Ire­land has em­braced it.

“A global sea­son would solve a lot of the prob­lems,” Meyer con­tin­ues. “You’d have three months of rest, like they do in the NFL, be­fore go­ing into a pre-sea­son. It’s been shown that fa­tigued play­ers are more sus­cep­ti­ble to in­juries. If and when a global sea­son comes into place, we will see fewer play­ers around the world side­lined with th­ese sorts of in­juries.

“Again, it’s tough for SA Rugby to ad­dress this is­sue given the fi­nan­cial sit­u­a­tion. If you don’t al­low play­ers to have th­ese dual con­tracts in South Africa and Ja­pan, then they could go to Europe and miss out on Su­per Rugby com­pletely. It’s a catch-22.”

FEWER ‘MIDDLETIER’ PLAY­ERS – THOSE WHO ARE NOT YOUNG­STERS OR NEAR THE END OF THEIR CA­REERS – WILL LEAVE SOUTH AFRICA. FEWER OF THOSE PLAY­ERS MAY BE WILL­ING TO PUT IN FIVE YEARS TO QUAL­IFY FOR AN­OTHER NA­TION.’ HEYNEKE MEYER

The Amer­i­can op­tion

Some play­ers may opt to by­pass the United King­dom, Europe and Ja­pan in the com­ing years.

As Roux men­tioned at the 2023 World Cup bid an­nounce­ment last year, USA rugby is on the rise and more South Africans could join those ranks in the near fu­ture.

“There are around 100 South African play­ers in­volved in some shape or form in the US at present,” says Gold, who has been with the Ea­gles since the start of 2018. “I ex­pect that num­ber to grow as rugby be­comes big­ger here.”

The Ma­jor League Rugby tour­na­ment will kick off in April this year. Seven teams will com­pete in the in­au­gu­ral in­stal­ment, while as many as 12 could fea­ture in 2019.

The Cru­saders have a stake in the team based in Seat­tle, while there are var­i­ous pri­vate in­vestors in­volved in teams across the States.

A big broad­cast deal is ap­par­ently in the off­ing, and as the pop­u­lar­ity of the com­pe­ti­tion grows, so too will the earn­ing po­ten­tial for play­ers.

Many South Africans have moved abroad with the aim of play­ing for an adopted test team.

Seven South African-born and schooled play­ers were on show dur­ing the first three rounds of the 2018 Six Na­tions – Quinn Roux and CJ Stander for Ire­land, Braam Steyn for Italy and David Den­ton, Cor­nell du Preez, By­ron McGuigan and WP Nel for Scot­land.

Even the USA side com­pet­ing in the Amer­i­cas Rugby Cham­pi­onship boasted a strong South African flavour, with play­ers like Mar­cel Brache, Jean-Pierre Eloff and Hanco Ger­mishuys.

As many as 14 South Africans have rep­re­sented Ger­many in tests over the past 10 years. Seven have played for the USA be­tween 2008 and 2017. Over­all, there have been more South African play­ers turn­ing out for sec­ond and third-tier na­tions than for the likes of Eng­land, France, Ire­land and Scot­land.

“It’s im­pos­si­ble to say how far those play­ers would have got in South Africa had they stayed here,” says Roux. “Some play­ers take longer to de­velop and reach their best.

“It can’t be de­nied that los­ing the ‘sec­ond rank’ of play­ers hurts our pro­vin­cial depth as much as los­ing top in­ter­na­tion­als does the Spring­bok team, though.”

Roux be­lieves the new res­i­dency rules will force na­tional fed­er­a­tions to think twice about con­tract­ing for­eign play­ers. He hopes to see fewer South African faces in op­po­si­tion line-ups. Meyer and Gold agree; up to a point.

“Fewer ‘mid­dle-tier’ play­ers – those who are not young­sters or near the end of their ca­reers – will leave South Africa,” sug­gests Meyer. “Fewer of those play­ers may be will­ing to put in five years to qual­ify for an­other na­tion.

“Whether that will stop the re­ally young play­ers from go­ing, and look­ing to grad­u­ate to other test teams, is an­other story.”

WIL­LIE BRITZ

PHILIP VAN DER WALT

VIC­TOR MAT­FIELD WP NEL

AN­DRE ESTER­HUIZEN

MONEY TALKS It con­tin­ues to be the bet­ter salaries on of­fer in Europe that are tempt­ing South African play­ers away.

LOST BOYS The Boks are find­ing it al­most im­pos­si­ble to keep their best play­ers in South Africa.

CON­VERTED A num­ber of South African-born play­ers such as CJ Stander have been stars for other na­tions.

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