Boks must settle on way forward

The injury to Jaco Kriel once again highlights the need for SA Rugby to settle on a policy regarding overseas-based Boks, writes CRAIG LEWIS.

When Coetzee selected his first Bok squad at the end of May, he picked just three overseas-based players. At the time, his message to the rest was clear: If you want to play for the Boks, you need to ply your trade in South Africa.

Yet, as pressure and injuries have mounted, so Coetzee has begun to turn back to a number of experienced campaigners playing overseas.

It’s revealing that in the 33-man squad now selected for the Boks’ end-of-year tour, eight overseas-based players were included, and this does not include the likes of Warren Whiteley and Kriel, who jetted off to play some rugby in Japan.

Lest we forget, it was while playing for Toulon that Duane Vermeulen picked up a knee injury on the eve of the Rugby Championship, while Bismarck du Plessis – who should surely have been a contender for a recall – suffered the same fate with Montpellier.

Now Kriel has been laid low at a time when he really should have been wrapped up in cotton wool considering the mini injury crisis the Boks are facing at openside flank.

Of course, injuries are part of the game, but again the Boks have faced the frustration of having news filter in from overseas that a key player will not be available, and which is sure to severely compromise their cause.

It’s a reminder of just how much of a workload is being shouldered by top players, and the dangers thereof.

There has also been talk that both JP Pietersen and Willie le Roux were not initially selected for the Rugby Championship at the behest of their overseas clubs.

Now, we also have a situation where Vermeulen has returned to fitness, but has been deemed to not be sufficiently ‘conditioned’ for Test rugby. Should this be the case, what does it say of the level of fitness and conditioning work done at a top French club such as Toulon? It doesn’t add up.

It was also enlightening that in a recent interview with Jesse Kriel, he acknowledged that a heavy workload over the last 12 months may well have contributed to some of the difficulties he faced in finding his best form during Super Rugby.

‘After the World Cup last year, I had a week at home, and then went straight to Japan for three months. So there was a lot of rugby, and I think I played close to 38 games last year … I never want to sound like I’m making excuses, but Super Rugby is just such a tough competition, and you’ve got to be at your best every weekend and ensure you’re mentally tough.

‘If you’re not pitching up at 100% every game, then you will be exposed. Perhaps at times I wasn’t up to the challenge every weekend.’

He is certainly not the only player to have come back from overseas either battle-weary, or not in the desirable physical or mental state.

Very similarly, Damian de Allende returned from Japan with an injury at the beginning of this year, and patently battled to re-establish the standards of performance that set him apart in 2015.

There is a sense that SA Rugby has reached a tipping point on the policy of overseas-based players. Following the recent coaching indaba in Cape Town, Lions coach Johan Ackermann insisted that it was a major problem to have Boks playing abroad, and that there had to be a move towards a form of centralised contracts to ensure the best players remain and are managed in South Africa.

It was a sentiment echoed by the Cheetahs’ Currie Cup-winning coach Franco Smith, who suggested that locally based players needed to be rewarded.

Ultimately, a way has to be found to streamline structures to ensure a limited number of ultra-professional franchises can combine with SA Rugby to contract and keep top players in the country, while ultimately working towards eliminating the selection of overseas-based Boks.

Photo: Ashley Vlotman/Gallo Images

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Craig Lewis