With Cheslin Kolbe set to switch French clubs in search of more silverware, SARugbymag.co.za looks at some of the South African players who enjoyed the most success with moves abroad.
Starting with the man himself, Kolbe has taken his game to the next level and finally earned appreciation for the gamebreaker he is since joining Toulouse from Western Province in 2017.
The 28-year-old has been a core part of Tolouse’s Top 14 win in 2019 and their domestic and European double in 2021. It was during his time with the French club that he earned his first Springbok call-up in 2018 and has gone on to win the World Cup and British & Irish Lions series.
He is reportedly set to make the switch to Toulon, where he will join Bok teammate Eben Etzebeth and form a deadly backline combo with French international wing Gabin Villiere.
Perhaps South Africa’s most successful export, Brits wrote himself into Saracens folklore after joining the English club from Western Province in 2009.
During his time in London, he won four Premiership titles in 2011, 2015, 2016 and 2018, featuring in all four finals, as well as two European titles in 2016 and 2017. He was also named Players’ Player of the year for the 2009-10 season and man of the match in the 2011 final against the Leicester Tigers.
Much like Kolbe, he earned a new appreciation for his skills since moving abroad. Famously, he reversed his decision to retire in 2018 after a call from Rassie Erasmus and formed part of the Springbok squad that won the 2019 World Cup, captaining them during a pool match in the tournament.
Duhan van der Merwe
The 25-year-old Van der Merwe, younger brother of Springbok hooker Akker, turned the injury-hit stages of his early career into gold since moving to Scotland to join Edinburgh.
The utility back had previously played for Tuks and the Blue Bulls before a lack of game time prompted a move to Montpellier in 2016. But his first season at the French club was injury-prone and led to more limited game time for Van der Merwe. A year later, he signed for Edinburgh and there his career took flight. After three consistent seasons in the Scottish capitol, Van der Merwe qualified for Scotland through the residency law and has been on a upward trajectory since.
Van der Merwe made 61 appearances for Edinburgh since moving across from France in 2017, scoring a total of 31 tries for the Scotland club, including 10 in his first season. Since making his debut against Georgia last October, Van der Merwe has won 10 Test caps and scored eight tries.
He earned a call-up to the British & Irish Lions squad to tour South Africa and played in all three Tests against the Springboks. Van der Merwe has made the move to England with the Worcester Warriors for the 2021-22 Premiership season.
Someone perhaps more unsung as the other players on this list, Ernst Joubert was a central player during Saracens’ golden era from 2009 onwards.
The loose forward joined the English club from the Golden Lions in 2009 and helped the team make the Premiership final in his first season with them and was rewarded with a place in the 2010 Premiership Dream Team. He was subsequently named vice-captain and helped Saracens win the Premiership title in 2011.
In total, Joubert made 161 appearances for Saracens, scoring 100 points, before retiring from rugby in 2015.
Any list of South Africans who achieved success abroad would be incomplete without Pienaar, who became a fan favourite at Ravenhill after joining Ulster from the Sharks in 2010.
In his eight years at the club, Pienaar made 141 appearances, scoring 877 points. In his first season with Ulster, he was named Player of the Year and included in the Team of the Year. He helped Ulster make the PRO12 final in his second season abroad in 2013 and was again named in the Team of the Year in 2012.
Pienaar then joined Montpellier in 2017 and helped them progress to the Top 14 final in 2018, before he returned to South Africa with the Cheetahs in 2019.
A fan favourite at Wasps, Johnson spent eight years at the Premiership club, scoring 42 tries and came within two caps of making 200 appearances for the club.
While he started his career as a loose forward, he seamlessly transitioned to hooker in the 2014-15 season and continued to alternate between the two positions.
Wasps head coach Lee Blackett hailed Johnson as one of the best signings in the club’s history, certain factions of the English media have singled Johnson out as arguably the greatest foreign signing in Premiership history.
144 – Trevor Leota (147) is the only overseas player with more @premrugby appearances for @WaspsRugby than Ashley Johnson (144), the South African has made 1,068 tackles in his time at Wasps, the most of any player at the club since his debut in 2012. Legend. pic.twitter.com/GQz3Fl142D
— OptaJonny (@OptaJonny) June 11, 2020
It is well documented at this point that Stander was told he was too small to play in his favoured loose-forward position in South Africa and chose to move abroad with Munster to fulfil his ambitions.
Stander made an impressive start to his career at his new club, scoring two tries on debut against the Glasgow Warriors. Since then, he accumulated 42 tries (210 points) in 156 appearances for the club.
He was named as Munster Player of the Year in April 2015, becoming the first overseas player to be awarded the accolade. He was also included in the 2014-15 PRO12 Dream Team. He became the first player to claim the Munster Player of the Year award for the second year in succession in May 2016, after scoring seven tries in 21 appearances, and captaining the side on 18 occasions.
He has been a star performer for Munster in every season since joining the squad and has been in every Ireland Test squad since he qualified for selection in 2016, before calling it a day on his career in 2021.
A highly rated young centre during his time with the Sharks – who also represented the Junior and Emerging Springboks – Barritt made the switch to Saracens in 2008 and established himself as one of the club’s greatest-ever players.
Spending 12 years at Saracens, Barritt made 261 appearances for the club, scoring 103 points.
Part of the club’s first-ever Premiership title success, Barritt went on to help the Men in Black to a further four domestic triumphs and became only the second captain in history to lift the European Cup on three occasions.
He would also qualify to play for England and represented the country 26 times between 2012 and 2015. Barritt was also called up to the British & Irish Lions squad during their tour of Australia in 2013.