The ongoing exodus of experienced players will continue to hamper South Africa’s Vodacom Super Rugby challenge in the years to come, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Most of South Africa’s best coaches and players are currently plying their trade overseas. The top players in this country continue to be courted by ambitious clubs, and continue to accept offers to further their careers in England, France and Japan.
The number of South African players based overseas is staggering. Indeed, when I did some research for a investigative article last year, I was told by the powers that be that my findings were conservative.
While it’s easy to track who is playing in the top European and Japanese leagues, it’s harder to say for sure how many South Africans are competing in Eastern Europe and across USA and Canada. My sources, however, are adamant that the number is significantly high – and growing every year.
Many have linked the drop in standards at Test level to the ongoing exodus of South African players. This is true up to a point, considering the current coach has the option of selecting as many overseas-based players as he deems fit. The drawback of picking overseas-based players, of course, is that they are seldom available for training camps as well as two or three games across the Test season.
No, the exodus is hitting South African rugby hardest at franchise level. The respective teams are losing top Springboks, as well as experienced Super Rugby players, on a regular basis. They are losing players with the ability to win matches as well as mentor the next generation of superstars.
Consider how South African rugby may have benefited from Handré Pollard and Lood de Jager continuing with the Vodacom Bulls after the 2019 World Cup. Consider what Eben Etzebeth may have offered at the Stormers as a senior player, or what Coenie Oosthuizen may have shared at the Sharks.
Coaches perform a key role in player development. That said, one should not underestimate the impact made by senior players in a team set-up. Those with Test experience are often tasked with aiding the up-and-coming youngsters in their quest to reach the next level.
I’ve singled out these four players, as each of them will be furthering their respective careers abroad next season. Their South African teams will miss them, both as individual contributors and as mentors.
Sadly, this has been happening for years. The table below shows which forwards will be leaving at the end of the current season, and which of those with Test experience are already abroad.
South African rugby will lose eight Bok forwards to overseas deals, and two more to short-term loans. As many as 24 Bok forwards are already abroad.
SPRINGBOK PLAYER EXODUS – FORWARDS*
|POSITION||LEAVING IN 2019||ALREADY OVERSEAS||RETURNING|
||Dan du Preez (Sale Sharks)*
Jean-Luc du Preez (Sale Sharks)*
|Willem Alberts (Stade Francais)
Arno Botha (Munster)
Heinrich Brüssow (Northampton Saints)
Nizaam Carr (Wasps)
Uzair Cassiem (Scarlets)
Marcell Coetzee (Ulster)
Ashley Johnson (Wasps)
Jaco Kriel (Gloucester)
Francois Louw (Bath)
Jacques Potgieter (Toulon)
Deon Stegmann (Honda Heat)
Pedrie Wannenburg (Austin Elite)
|Schalk Burger (Saracens)|
|LOCKS||Lood de Jager (Sale Sharks)
Eben Etzebeth (Toulon)
Jason Jenkins (Canon Eagles)
Stephan Lewies (Harlequins)
RG Snyman (Honda Heat)
|Juandré Kruger (Toulon)
Franco Mostert (Gloucester)
Flip van der Merwe (Clermont)
|2s||Schalk Brits (retirement)
Akker van der Merwe (Sale Sharks)
|Bismarck du Plessis (Montpellier)|
|PROPS||Coenie Oosthuizen (Sale Sharks)||Lourens Adriaanse (Pau)
Pat Cilliers (London Irish)
Ruan Dreyer (Gloucester)
Jannie du Plessis (Montpellier)
Vincent Koch (Saracens)
Werner Kruger (Ospreys)
Heinke van der Merwe (Stade Francais)
Marcel van der Merwe (Toulon)
South Africa prides itself on its ability to produce loose forwards. It’s fair to say that the combination of Siya Kolisi, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Duane Vermeulen is the best available back row at present.
Should we be surprised, though, that our South African teams are struggling in the Super Rugby tournament when 12 loose forwards with Bok experience are excelling in the European and Japanese leagues?
That’s just the tip of the iceberg, though. The number of uncapped South African loose forwards excelling abroad, and indeed the number of those performing for their adopted countries, is once again significant.
How badly does South African rugby miss Ruan Ackermann, Chris Cloete, Rynhardt Elstadt, Lappies Labuschagne and Michael Rhodes? How about Cornell du Preez (Scotland), CJ Stander (Ireland), Braam Steyn (Italy), Josh Strauss (Scotland) and Wimpie van der Walt (Japan)?
Perhaps these players – as well as the aforementioned 12 with Bok experience – will not be considered for the World Cup squad this year. But how does their absence impact on the South African game as a whole? How much stronger would the local franchises be with these men in tow?
And that’s just the loose forwards. A host of front-rankers are based abroad, and – as seen by this year’s recruitment list – more top locks are leaving all the time.
How about the chief decision-making positions in the backline? The Boks appear to be short on options at No 9, 10 and 12 at present and too few players are pushing for higher honours in these positions at franchise level. When one looks at the contingent based abroad, however, there’s an embarrassment of experience.
SPRINGBOK PLAYER EXODUS – BACKS
|POSITION||LEAVING IN 2019||ALREADY OVERSEAS||RETURNING|
|OUTSIDE BACKS||Gio Aplon (Toyota Verblitz)
Zane Kirchner (Dragons/Bristol)
Cheslin Kolbe (Toulouse)
Willie le Roux (Wasps/Toyota Verblitz)
JP Pietersen (Toulon)
Raymond Rhule (Grenoble)
|CENTRES||Jesse Kriel (Canon Eagles)||Juan de Jongh (Wasps),
Rohan Janse van Rensburg (Sale Sharks)
Wynand Olivier (Worcester Warriors)
Jan Serfontein (Montpellier)
Jaco Taute (Munster/Leicester)
Francois Venter (Worcester Warriors)
|Frans Steyn (Montpellier)|
|10s||Rob du Preez (Sale Sharks)
Handré Pollard (Montpellier)
|Morné Steyn (Stade Francais)|
|9s||Faf de Klerk (Sale Sharks)
Ricky Januarie (Agen)
Ruan Pienaar (Montpellier)
|Piet van Zyl (Stade Francais – retired)|
Morné Steyn is returning to the Bulls in 2020. Apart from Steyn and Elton Jantjies, we’re unlikely to see any Bok halfbacks based in South Africa who boast more than 20 Test caps.
Yet again, we should remember exactly what South African rugby has lost in this department over the past few seasons. The departure of players with no Test caps yet plenty of experience at Super Rugby level has served to deplete South Africa’s stock of established No 9s and 10s.
Scrumhalves such as Dewaldt Duvenage, James Hall and Rory Kockott are playing in Europe. Flyhalves of the calibre of Demetri Catrakilis, Lionel Cronjé, Willie du Plessis, Peter Grant, Burton Francis, Johan Goosen, Niel Marais, Brandon Thomson, Jaco van der Walt and Fred Zeilinga are all based abroad.
Some of those names may not scream Test quality. But when one considers how many of these halfbacks have left, one begins to understand how the player pool in South Africa has been depleted and how some youngsters – many of whom are not ready – are being pushed to play Super Rugby.
There doesn’t seem to be a clear solution, given that SA Rugby and the franchises cannot match the lucrative offers of ambitious overseas clubs.
It’s something to bear in mind, though, when asking why South African teams are struggling to compete against the best teams in Super Rugby and why they’re failing to mount a serious assault on the title.