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Goosen’s dirty business


  • 03 Apr 2018
Johan Goosen in SA Rugby magazine Johan Goosen in SA Rugby magazine

Johan Goosen will come out of ‘retirement’ to join French club Montpellier, writes GAVIN MORTIMER.

I remember the first time I interviewed Johan Goosen. It was at the Racing 92 training ground in October 2014, the day after he had returned with the squad from Treviso, where he’d sat on the bench during their European Champions Cup win over Benetton. Johnny Sexton had started for the Parisians and there was a definite sense of frustration at playing the Irishman’s understudy. Not that Goosen wasn’t engaging and forthcoming during the interview. 

We talked about his time in Paris, learning the language and his decision to leave the Cheetahs for the riches on offer in France.

‘Sport is a business, it’s your livelihood,’ he explained. ‘You have to look after yourself as best you can.’

The next time we talked was in January 2016, by which time he was a regular starter for Racing, and, as it would turn out, the key factor in their winning the Top 14 title five months later, putting in a Man of the Match performance against Toulon in the final.

I was at that magnificent occasion, played out in front of 98,000 fans at the Nou Camp in Barcelona.

Forty-eight hours later I spoke to Goosen for a third time, again for SA Rugby magazine, and after he’d described the ‘awesome vibe’ of playing at the Nou Camp, he reflected on life at Racing, saying he was ‘very happy with my season’. So happy, in fact, that a few days later the club announced he had extended his contract until 2020.

And that’s when things started to go wrong.

Goosen and his young family returned to South Africa a few days after the Top 14 final and in August he made his first appearance in a Springbok jersey for two years, scoring a try in the 30-23 win over Argentina. Three more caps followed in that year’s Rugby Championship before he rejoined Racing a month into the new French season.

One of his first duties back in France was to attend the annual Top 14 awards ceremony, where he received the 2015-16 Player of the Year accolade, and proceeded to wax lyrical about the ‘huge honour’ of playing for Racing. He also mumbled something about not caring what position he played because ‘it’s always the team first’.

Only it wasn’t, not with Goosen and Racing.

A few weeks after that awards ceremony the South African shocked the rugby world by announcing his retirement. Of course, none of us really believed that the 24-year-old was hanging up his boots for good; he was putting them in storage, but when and where they would next be seen nobody knew. There was gossip about his joining Gloucester, cheap talk of his signing for the Cheetahs ... but from the man himself, nothing. Goosen returned home and clocked on as a commercial director at a saddle-horse stud farm in Bloemfontein.

The French couldn’t believe it. Racing were understandably furious, president Jacky Lorenzetti vowing to have his revenge in court, while reporters jetted to South Africa in search of the South African Scarlet Pimpernel. ‘We seek him here, we seek him there, Those Frenchies seek him everywhere. Is he in heaven? Is he in hell? That damned, elusive Johan Goosen.’

Eventually L’Equipe found him in June 2017, training alone at Grey College, and the paper took a long-range photo of Goosen, who, judging by his ‘greeting’, was clearly irritated at the intrusion. But as for shedding any light on what L’Equipe described as his ‘suspicious departure’ from Racing six months earlier, the paper said it had drawn a blank, because of the ‘omerta’ surrounding the case.

That code of silence lasted until the end of February when Montpellier announced that Goosen would be playing for them next season. It was a big story in the French press, but not that surprising. Mohed Altrad, the millionaire owner of the Mediterranean club, had been linked to Goosen for months, admitting in an interview last September that the South African ‘is a player who really interests me’.

The strength of that interest is evident in the reputed €1.5-million (R22-million) Altrad paid Racing to release Goosen from his contract. That sum, according to the French press, includes the €200,000 image-rights money Lorenzetti advanced Goosen in June 2016 so that he could buy a farm in South Africa, as well as a €90,000 house, which was procured through a London-based Lithuanian company. Then there is Goosen’s salary, which L’Equipe alleges has been paid by Altrad since January 2017.

What we still don’t know, is why Goosen did what he did. Before walking out on Racing he was on record as moaning about the weather and the big-city life, but those surely aren’t reason enough for quitting.

The weather is better in Montpellier and the Mediterranean city will be more to his liking, as perhaps will the money. Nonetheless, he was reportedly on a salary of €500,000 (R7.3-million) a season at Racing, at the top end of Top 14 wages.

That was unlikely to have provoked his sudden departure.

It’s a grubby affair, given the way Lorenzetti invested in Goosen. He’s got his money back, of course, and Altrad has got his man, but what’s rugby left with? Sure, the sport is a business, as Goosen told me in 2014, and only the hardest of hearts would begrudge a player making as much money as he can from a game with an increasingly short life-span. But that can still be done ethically and honourably. Otherwise, what are we left with, other than a sport in which loyalty counts for nothing in the face of filthy lucre?

– This article first appeared in the April 2018 issue of SA Rugby magazine. The May issue is on sale 23 April.

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