The selection of overseas-based players increasingly requires a delicate balancing act from the Boks, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
Not for the first time this year, the Springboks are locked in discussions as they look to secure the services of a key overseas-based player for international duty.
Although it’s recently been reported that influential scrumhalf Faf de Klerk would be duty-bound to his English club during the upcoming November internationals, it’s believed that the Springboks are still hoping to negotiate for his release for at least part of the end-of-year tour.
The Boks would understandably be intent on being able to select their first-choice halfback as they continue to build towards the fast-approaching World Cup, but the Sale Sharks are also desperate to have one of their star players back, especially after his belated return to England due to Rugby Championship duties.
It’s a sensitive club vs country debate that involves a rather complicated juggling act, and one that SA Rugby generally isn’t keen to provide a ‘running commentary’ on.
Before the 2018 international season had even kicked off, the complications around selecting overseas-based players came starkly into the spotlight. When the June Test window opened, new Bok coach Rassie Erasmus identified a few positions where some extra experience was required from abroad and included Bismarck du Plessis and Frans Steyn in his first squad for the year.
The selection of the two Montpellier-based stalwarts was largely welcomed by Springbok supporters who recognised the value they could add. Yet, on the Monday before the Boks’ first Test against England, the duo had still not arrived at the national camp.
By the Thursday, it was confirmed that it was simply taking too long for the players to arrive at camp, and the pair were duly withdrawn from the Bok squad on the basis that they had picked up ‘injuries’ in the French Top 14 final.
It was a situation that caused many rugby followers to raise their eyebrows in scepticism. After all, we’ve seen this movie before, with French clubs having become particularly notorious for their reluctance to release their highly paid players for Test duty.
These are clubs funded by multi-millionaire owners who would rather prioritise the preservation of their most valued assets than see them come into harm’s way on Test duty. Reading between the lines, it’s understood that Montpellier were complicit in stalling the release of Du Plessis and Steyn until SA Rugby decided it was no longer worth playing the waiting game.
Basically, the Boks had to pick their battles. Duane Vermeulen’s inclusion for the June series against England was deemed necessary, despite the fact he had taken up a contract in Japan that rendered him unavailable for the Rugby Championship. The selection of De Klerk and Willie le Roux was also vindicated as they produced standout performances on their return for the Boks, but it required an element of buy-in from their English clubs.
De Klerk plies his trade with the Sale Sharks, a team that finished eighth in the 2017-18 English Premiership season and failed to earn qualification for the European Champions Cup. Sale director of rugby Steve Diamond is chuffed to see De Klerk firing for the Springboks and aware that the scrumhalf’s Test exposure can be mutually beneficial.
However, he would also understandably like to ensure that Sale benefit from the investment in De Klerk, who was available to the club all of last year, and made significant improvements to his game as a result of his northern-hemisphere exposure.
Similarly, Wasps director of rugby Dai Young is aware that Le Roux’s Bok recall is a credit to the success of his club, but it certainly wasn’t ideal for any party to have the fullback shoot back to England for a solitary Premiership game in the middle of the Rugby Championship.
It all makes for a tricky situation, with SA Rugby sometimes needing to give a little to get a lot. As it is, the decision to scrap the 30-cap eligibility ruling for overseas-based players was largely based on the realisation that certain talented players couldn’t continue to be overlooked.
However, there is also an acknowledgement that there simply isn’t the financial clout to prevent every leading player from taking up lucrative offers overseas. By at least trying to play ball with these clubs, SA Rugby has to accept that it’s often better to have access to these Boks for certain games as opposed to none at all.
The unfortunate reality is that players are often caught in the middle of a tug-of-war, where they need to accede to the desire of their primary paymasters while also trying to keep their national ambitions alive. It’s a tricky position for all parties concerned, but what has become apparent is that players need to put their priorities in order before they accept an overseas offer.
For a top Bok player, a powerful club such as Montpellier might come flashing the cash, but players need to be mindful of how difficult it’s becoming to then receive clearance for Test duty. By contrast, a number of English clubs seem more open to the idea of framing contracts to respect the national ambitions of their overseas players, but for some, a move to England may not be as attractive as the lure of France.
It’s a case of risk vs reward, and it’s clear that players need to know exactly what they’re signing up for, because there can be plenty at stake.
Photo: Anton Geyser/Gallo Images