SA Rugby must review its policy and approach to selecting overseas-based players in order to aid the Springboks’ cause in 2018, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
It’s a damning indictment that the Springboks will be forced to press the reset button once again in 2018. After all, it was meant to be so different. When reviewing a 2016 season that yielded just four wins and a host of shock losses, Allister Coetzee insisted that Bok fans could look forward to welcoming in the start of a bright new dawn once he’d had more time to work with the team and settle on plans and preparations.
Over the first five Tests of 2017, the national coach appeared to be making good on his promise as the Boks cruised to a series whitewash over France and back-to-back victories against Argentina. Slowly but surely, though, the cracks that had initially been papered over began to open, before crumbling into a messy heap during a dark day in Dublin on 11 November.
That record 38-3 loss to Ireland brought memories of the 57-0 blowout against the All Blacks in Albany, and the humiliating first loss to Italy at the end of 2016, flooding back. Yet, as he had done for so much of his tenure, Coetzee shrugged off the defeat in another defiant display of denial. A week later he saw fit to heap praise on the Boks after they battled their way to an uninspiring one-point win over a French team that former Bok boss Nick Mallett described as ‘one of the worst-coached teams in world rugby’.
Around the same time, incoming director of rugby Rassie Erasmus began to settle in at SA Rugby’s headquarters in Cape Town to start plotting the way forward for 2018 and beyond. Among a heap of issues, one that must sit at the top of the agenda, is the need to address the policy and perception around picking overseas-based players.
More than once during the course of 2017, Coetzee expressed his reluctance to draw on players from abroad, often with the intimation that their conditioning and fitness would not be up to the required standard.
Francois Louw and Duane Vermeulen were only called up towards the end of the year once the Boks suffered injury blows to their back row, while Ruan Combrinck’s decision to join a Japanese club appeared to work against him. After the June series against France, stalwart Frans Steyn was also deemed surplus to requirements, although Coetzee eventually hinted there were club-related issues that had contributed to his omission.
The fact remains, there are more than 300 South Africans playing professional rugby abroad, and there is simply no end in sight to the player drain. Despite SA Rugby’s attempt to enforce a 30-cap eligibility ruling for overseas-based players, it’s proved to be merely commendable in theory rather than practice.
Cobus Reinach was mindful of this ruling, but ultimately accepted an offer that was too good to turn down from the Northampton Saints. Faf de Klerk and Cheslin Kolbe realised their long-term Bok dreams were likely to go unfulfilled and headed for greener pastures.
Meanwhile, talented loose forward Ruan Ackermann had little hesitation in packing his bags for Gloucester at the mere age of 21. It should hurt to see the likes of these players – and so many more – making an impression abroad, while it particularly stings to hear Ackermann speak of possibly exploring the option of playing for England.
It points to serious flaws in the South African rugby system, where coaching shortfalls, unprofessionalism, politics and poor succession planning can often lead to disillusionment among our players. Ultimately, the powers that be in South African rugby desperately need to begin engaging in proactive dialogue about how to consolidate their playing resources rather than continuing to spread the cash far and wide among a pool of ‘professional’ players that is far too big.
The good news is that Erasmus will be coming in with a fresh view on this matter. Having spent some 18 months in Munster coaching with – and against – overseas-based players, he will have a clear-cut idea of who could still have a contributing role to play with the Boks.
As it stands, though, South African rugby has been drained of too much talent to continue arrogantly assuming we can do without the experience of certain wily veterans plying their trade overseas.
– This column first appeared in the January 2018 issue of SA Rugby magazine. The February issue is on sale now!