Johan Goosen may have ended his career by ‘retiring’ from professional rugby to get out of a five-year deal with Racing 92, writes GAVIN RICH.
‘It’s not a normal rugby story. In fact, it’s not a rugby story at all.’
Those were the words of one person involved in the Johan Goosen saga that ensured rugby stayed in the news after the period in December when the home leg of the World Rugby Sevens Series usually draws the curtain on the year and ushers in a stronger focus on cricket. And those words couldn’t be more apt. The mere fact that no one wanted to be quoted on the issue underlined how different it all is to the usual rugby news.
Goosen, just 24 years old and having received only 60 pay cheques as a professional player, shocked his employers, Racing 92, and the rugby public by opting to take up employment outside the sport. It was a decision that drew an angry reaction from club president Jacky Lorenzetti,and also from Toulon boss Mourad Boudjellal, who colourfully claimed that any club president who signed Goosen would be a ‘bastard’.
‘Johan Goosen, whose contract was re-evaluated less than a year ago, now claims to be able to get rid of it in a fantastic way,’ said Lorenzetti in a statement issued by the club.
But although Goosen clearly deserves much of the criticism that has flowed in his direction, if you dig deeper into the story, it is much harder to apportion blame for the mess that could potentially prevent the prodigiously talented Goosen from gracing a South African rugby field, or any rugby field, again.
Yes, sadly that is a fact, and one of the few indisputable facts from Goosen’s fallout with Racing and his retirement, if you want to call it that, from professional rugby. His career could be over, for it’s hard to see how he’s going to get back into the sport, short of him taking cap in hand and returning to the Paris-based club.
It’s still possible for him to do that. Racing have made it clear they will welcome him back. But the trust between player and club has been broken; Goosen doesn’t want to stay in Paris for another four years, and is believed to have even told confidants that he would rather go to prison than return to play for his former employers.
The reasons, according to some who know Goosen, are that he is essentially just a farm boytjie and while he tolerated the Paris environment, he was never crazy about it. He is from Burgersdorp, which is hardly known for its bright lights, and he is more comfortable working in the fields with cows and sheep than he is with the fast-paced lifestyle of a professional rugby player in a metropolitan centre.
The rest of his young family are the same. Goosen has a one-year-old son, and his wife is from Bloemfontein. Yes, bigger than Burgersdorp, but not in the same stratosphere as Paris. The real problem therefore may be that Goosen agreed to have his contract bumped up to five years. It might be irresponsible for a 23-year-old rugby player to be pushed into such a long contract and perhaps he was poorly advised.
Unfortunately, as we cannot speak to Goosen, we have no way of knowing if it’s true that he was keen on signing for so long and that he believed there were escape clauses that don’t exist.
There isn’t anyone who is blameless and above reproach in this story, and Goosen would probably be the first to admit as much. There are apparently players who read all the fine-print of their contracts before signing, and there are others who just want to know the salient points – how much will they be paid, what are the demands on him and what are the tax implications? Although agents who have worked with Goosen describe him as selfish and even a bit irrational with his demands, he would appear to rank among the latter.
One of the crucial points in his contract that Goosen missed and that may not have been properly explained to him was that he would not be available to play for his country. This is why I say it’s hard to apportion blame – his agents should have informed Goosen, but then, wasn’t it understandable for them to assume he knew he was giving away his right to play for the Boks?
After all, when he moved to France, the status of overseas-based players with regard to Bok eligibility was up in the air, and it remains so. Five years is a long time for someone to think they had guaranteed eligibility, and as at early-February, it was still not clear what the SA Rugby ruling would be. There’s a good chance there’ll be a qualification system similar to the one in Australia, whereby overseas-based players who have not played a significant number of games for South Africa will be disqualified.
It’s likely it will be compulsory for players to be based in South Africa by 2019 if they want to play for the Boks at the World Cup that year. That would leave Goosen out of the picture as he is contracted until 2020 – or at least he was, until he left Racing to take up a position as commercial director at a saddle- horse stud farm back home.
In interviews conducted before his return in theTest for the Springboks against Argentina in Nelspruit in 2016, Goosen may have given us a hint at the heart of the problem. When he left South Africa, when there was a different coach in charge of the national team, he thought his international career was over.
‘When [Bok manager] Ian Schwartz called me I started wondering where my blazer was. In 2014, at the conclusion of the end-of-year tour, I made peace with the fact my Springbok dream was over,’ said Goosen.
The former Grey High schoolboy sensation – there are videos on YouTube of some of the monster kicks he landed while still at school – clearly does want to play international rugby. He told the reporters at Mbombela Stadium last August about how humbled and happy he was to be back.
Complicating the reading of the Goosen situation is the advice the player has been given that he should not speak to the media or make any public pronouncements that may divulge any information that could be used as evidence in a criminal court action against him. The player has been accused by his club of committing fraud, who seem to view his decision to leave rugby to be a smoke-and-mirrors exercise designed to hide his real intent, which is to sign with another club, or even return to play for the Cheetahs.
Gloucester were the team he was first linked with, but although this was regarded as fact by many on social media and even in the rugby industry, there’s been no proof that there was any veracity to those allegations. It seems it was never anything more than rumour, and the Racing allegation that his appointment in the agricultural industry was a front to get him out of his contract is also hearsay.
There was enough smoke to go with the fire when it comes to the link with the Cheetahs. It’s understood that one of the Cheetahs flyhalves threw a tizzy fit during the off-season when he came across a squad list pinned to a change-room wall that had Goosen’s name on it.
Cheetahs coach Franco Smith denied he had persuaded Goosen to return home when he was working with the player in his capacity as temporary Bok assistant coach during the recent end-of-year tour to the UK and Italy. In any event, Cheetahs CEO Rory Duncan was firm – Goosen is untouchable until he either patches up his problems with Racing or someone pays the buy-out fee of €1-million. Who can afford that sort of money?
There has been some sympathy for the Racing position, and understandably so. The Goosen contract was worth €6-million and they reportedly advanced him a significant sum of money. But at the same time they are not guiltless either, and probably know that. While English clubs get away with preventing Fijian players from playing for their national team, asking a player to agree to not be available to play for his country goes against an important World Rugby regulation.
When Goosen was mentioned as a potential Allister Coetzee selection for the series against Ireland last June, the Racing president stepped in and informed Goosen he could not play. Goosen was understandably upset and a compromise was sought, which would enable him to participate in part of the Bok international season but not all of it (ie, he’d play against Ireland and tour with the Boks in November but miss out on the Rugby Championship).
But Racing weren’t interested in any kind of compromise and told Goosen that if he played for the Boks, he would not be paid. And he wasn’t. He did not receive any pay cheques from the club for four months, and had to rely on Bok match fees for his income.
It would have hit his pocket hard and would not have done anything positive for his relationship with Racing.
There is some legal opinion that Goosen would win a case against Racing if he tried to argue that what they were doing is illegal. But it would probably take several years, and it would cost Goosen a fortune. He would not just be pitting himself against Racing either, for the entire European club rugby establishment would stand to lose if he won and thus was able to show that aspects of the contracts binding players to those clubs not to be worth the paper they are written on.
So where does this leave everyone? Confused would be a good word, and there is plenty of sentiment against Goosen and the way he has been handled by his agents. Particularly within the South African rugby-agent industry. There is a feeling that Eduard Kelder, who represents Goosen and was also involved in the Franco Mostert debacle (the Lions lock allegedly broke an undertaking to play for French club Lyon) promised Goosen the world, but then couldn’t deliver.
However, unless a way can be found for Goosen to be able to tell his side of the story, it would appear to be unfair to pillory him until all the facts are known.
What’s certain is that one of South Africa’s finest sporting talents is unlikely to be able to continue his career for the foreseeable future, and that’s a tragedy not only for Goosen, but also for the local rugby fans.
The only consolation is that perhaps the whole sordid affair can be seen as an object lesson by all parties – rugby club owners, agents and players – about what should be done and what needs to be avoided if the sport is to be administered more fairly, professionally and efficiently.
THEY SAID IT
‘Whichever club president signs Goosen next is a bastard. What he does is a breach of his contract. When a player has such an attitude, he must find closed doors everywhere. If a president signs, it puts all the other presidents of the Top 14 in danger. When you sign a contract with a player, you already do not have many rights but many obligations. If a president recruits him, there will be even fewer rights.’ – Toulon president Mourad Boudjellal
‘In response to Johan Goosen’s behaviour, Racing 92 is forced to initiate several legal proceedings aimed at enforcing its rights and redressing the harm done to the club. Racing 92 believes that the club is a victim of blatant fraud that Johan Goosen, his associates and various advisers must answer for in court.’ – Racing 92 in a press release stating that the club would be taking legal action
‘There is no truth in it. I have not thought it possible, because to my knowledge, Johan is contracted in France until 2020. We have not made him an offer or invited him back.’ – Cheetahs coach Franco Smith denies rumours Goosen will play for his team in the 2017 Super Rugby competition
– This article first appeared in the March 2017 issue of SA Rugby magazine
SA RUGBY MAGAZINE SUBSCRIPTION RATE
– Available monthly to Foschini Group account holders for R26.99 (incl VAT) per issue
– Non-Foschini Group account holders (12 issues): R359 (incl VAT), Neighbouring states: R620; International: R820
SA RUGBY MAGAZINE SUBSCRIPTION ENQUIRIES
– Foschini Group account holders: Phone 0860-117-529, email [email protected], or SMS ‘SARUGBY’ and your account number to 44001
– Non-Foschini Group account holders: Phone (021) 416-0141, fax 086-567-1350, or email: [email protected]