Fighting a losing battle

JON CARDINELLI reveals the reasons for South African rugby’s player drain and why talented youngsters may continue to move abroad.

Consider what was said by SA Rugby CEO Jurie Roux in the aftermath of the 2023 World Cup bid announcement last November. The French delegation celebrated wildly after securing the rights to host the global tournament, while the dejected South Africans were left to count the costs of a failed campaign.

‘When you host a World Cup, there is an aspiration platform,’ Roux said. ‘On top of that is a financial platform that creates enough revenue that can further your development plans, and maybe stem the outflow of players [leaving South Africa] in search of the euro, pound, yen and dollar. We will have to face things in a different way after this result.’

Consider the state of the nation at the time of Roux’s statement. South African rugby appeared to be at its lowest point, with all local teams (bar the Lions) battling to compete at Super Rugby level and the Springboks languishing at fifth place in the World Rugby rankings. The struggle to retain talent – young and experienced – was highlighted by the fact that more than 400 South Africans were plying their trade at overseas clubs.

Roux, however, suggested that South African rugby would sustain further blows to its player base in the wake of the 2023 World Cup bid decision. As bad as things were, they had the potential to get a lot worse.

In 2008, there were 235 South Africans abroad, with 91% of that group spread across England, France and Italy. The overall number of players migrating to Europe has swelled significantly over the ensuing 10 years, as has the South African contingent based in the Celtic nations and Japan.

In 2017, SA Rugby listed 332 Saffas at overseas clubs, although that did not include those competing in the United States and other smaller leagues around Europe.


SA Rugby magazine approached Roux for comment on this alarming increase in departures over the past decade. The SA Rugby CEO reiterates that money is the primary reason so many South Africans take up contracts abroad.

‘We’ve done our research on the topic. The main reason for that growth in departures is the exchange rate between the rand and the respective currencies,’ he says. ‘When a player gets a great offer from abroad, we can’t compete with the money and the opportunities to play in another country. There are tax and other benefits too, as well as the lure of residency and passports from other countries.

‘We have to box clever,’ Roux offers when asked if SA Rugby has formulated any strategies to address the problem. ‘By getting the Cheetahs and Kings to play in the Pro14, we have given 60 of our local professional players an opportunity to experience a new competition, in new countries, against new opponents. We probably also have to look at the wage bill of our professional players in South Africa, from U19 upwards, and find ways of retaining the best of the best, as well as a strong core of players for our eight franchises. But at the same time we must ensure the top Springboks earn salaries here that are on par with what they will get playing elsewhere.’

Before taking on the top job at USA Rugby, Gary Gold was an assistant coach at the Stormers and Boks, and head coach at London Irish, Newcastle, Bath, the Kobelco Steelers, Sharks and Worcester Warriors. Having seen so many players leave South African teams to take up lucrative contracts abroad, and having been on the other side of the equation when coaching in countries like England, Japan and the US, Gold is well placed to comment on the issue.

‘The financial factor is massive,’ he states. ‘When I was at the Sharks [in 2015 and 2016], we wanted to keep [senior Bok forwards] Jannie and Bismarck du Plessis. The reality of the situation was that the French clubs were offering more than double what we could afford. When I was at Worcester, guys like Wynand Olivier and Francois Hougaard were obviously getting a lot more than they could have got back home at the Bulls.

‘The money is the main reason for players heading abroad. Sadly, there is a perception among some people that the “quota system” is going to stop top players from getting opportunities in South Africa. I don’t agree with that at all. It’s a poor excuse, but as I said, it is sadly a perception. I have spoken to people who are disappointed that their son hasn’t been capped yet – and this is at young ages such as 19, 20 and 21. The parents want the player to explore the option of qualifying for a foreign nation and earning some good money abroad.’


More youngsters are heading abroad than was the case 10 years ago, some for positions in junior teams. Irish giants Munster came in for criticism recently when they signed two South African teenagers, prop Keynon Knox and utility back Matt Moore, to their academy. Knox captained Michaelhouse in 2017 and represented KwaZulu-Natal at Craven Week level, while Moore played for Eastern Province Country Districts in the U18 tournament.

Some Irish pundits feel the club should have invested in local players. In South Africa, the concern is that too many players are exploring similar options, with the ultimate aim of representing a Test side other than the Boks.

‘Younger players head abroad for numerous reasons, two of which are money and experiences,’ notes Roux. ‘We need to ensure they get the best opportunities and the best coaching here, though. The flip side is that they may be denying themselves the opportunity of fulfilling a dream and becoming a Springbok. That’s something you keep for life, not just for a few years in your 20s.’

Heyneke Meyer says the rugby world has changed a great deal since he was at the helm of the Bulls in the early- and mid-2000s.

‘It was a challenge to lose experienced players like Victor Matfield, but you only had to worry about that happening towards the end of the player’s career,’ says the former Bulls and Bok mentor. ‘Nowadays, you have to worry about everyone going abroad, from the older guys to those in their prime, to the youngsters in the junior teams.

‘I was able to keep a lot of promising youngsters at the Bulls. That allowed me to build up some depth and a succession plan. Nowadays, the youngsters know they can get five times the money playing abroad. If they are not in the starting side or in the main squad, that can be an attractive option. It’s a very difficult situation for coaches trying to build some depth and for SA Rugby, which may want to build some quality in depth across the franchises to make sure the Boks are strong.’

Again, the overseas clubs benefit in this scenario, while the South African teams and, ultimately, the national side are weakened.

‘A lot of the players also move for the opportunity to play Test rugby,’ Meyer points out. ‘I was honest with WP Nel when I was Bok coach. I told him that he wouldn’t start at tighthead prop for the Boks if he stayed in South Africa [the national side was spoiled for choice at No 3 at the time]. Now he is playing for Scotland.

‘You can’t blame the player for wanting to play Test rugby. For a long time, you only had to spend three years in the country to qualify for the Test side [the new World Rugby qualification period of five years will come into effect in 2020], and so for guys who knew that they weren’t in line to start for the Boks, this was the best route to the top.

‘South Africa has some of the best junior structures in the world,’ Meyer adds. ‘The problem is that the world has got a lot smaller. Scouts come over to watch our players competing in Craven Week, and at the academies, and in the U19 and U20 provincial competitions, but they don’t really need to. 

‘Technology being what it is nowadays, players and agents can cut their own videos and send them to prospective clubs. Some of the school games are on TV. Overseas scouts have access to a lot more information.’

South Africa has never been short of young talent. Every year, we see new players making their mark in the Varsity Cup, the Currie Cup and even Super Rugby. Gold feels that South Africa retains enough of its young talent.

The problem arises when players build up some experience at Super Rugby and Test levels and then opt to further their careers overseas. South Africa certainly can’t afford to have a whole host of these decision-makers playing abroad and not in the local tournaments.

‘Look at the halfback problems South Africa have had over the past couple of years, and look at who we have playing abroad,’ says Gold. ‘Scrumhalves like Cobus Reinach, Francois Hougaard and Faf de Klerk – three Boks – as well as another experienced player in Nic Groom are playing in England. That highlights a player drain as far as a specific position is concerned.

‘Flyhalf was an issue when Handré Pollard got injured in 2016, as the Boks only had Elton Jantjies to fall back on [Pat Lambie moved to France after his injury].’


The number of South Africans competing in Japan’s Top League has grown from four in 2008 to 40 in 2017. SA Rugby and the franchises have played a key role in this development, urging local players to spend half the year with a Super Rugby side and the other in Japan in lieu of accepting a lucrative offer from clubs in the United Kingdom and Europe.

The downside, however, is that Boks who divide their time between South Africa and Japan are not available for every Test in a season. More concerning yet is the number of injuries that are sustained, many of them fatigue-related, while on club duty in Japan. Indeed, Pollard suffered one of his more serious injuries while playing in the Top League early in 2016.

‘The Japanese model has its challenges, but it also provides an opportunity for our players to make some money abroad without being totally lost to the South African game,’ says Roux. ‘We have to manage this carefully, though. When the players sign contracts with the Japanese clubs, they know what they are committing to. Although there has been the odd issue with availability, it hasn’t happened too much to be a major concern at this stage.’

Gold and Meyer have marked the impact of this option. There are some pros, but they do not outweigh the cons.

Says Gold: ‘In one sense, Japan has been a lifeline for South African rugby. Take Philip van der Walt and André Esterhuizen, for example, players who aren’t Boks, but may have been lost to Europe if not for their dual contracts with the Sharks and their Japanese clubs. I was involved in that contracting process when I was at the Sharks. At that stage, we felt it was a win-win, as the players could earn enough to keep them in South Africa for Super Rugby. It also saved the Sharks a bit of money, as they didn’t have to pay those players during the Currie Cup.

‘Where it becomes problematic is when guys like Philip and André return from Japan and then go straight back into Super Rugby, without much of a break. I remember Ryan Kankowski making the point after four consecutive years in Japan. He said he felt completely drained.

‘Another issue is when Springboks like Warren Whiteley and Elton Jantjies take up these dual contracts instead of European contracts,’ Gold adds. ‘Japanese clubs want their top players to be available in June and July, and again over November. Those are obviously times when the Boks will need players like Warren and Elton in tow [for the June Tests and end-of-year tour].’

Meyer acknowledges the challenges facing SA Rugby and local coaches, who may want to keep a top player in the country. In the end, however, these parties may be putting the player at risk and even limiting what the individual can achieve on the Test stage.

‘A rugby player can’t play three years without a break,’ says Meyer. ‘When I was at the Boks, we asked the franchises to rest certain players during the Super Rugby season. That only provides the player in question with a mental break, though. It’s not a physical break. That player can’t go on to play most of the Super Rugby tournament, most of the Tests for the Boks, a full season in Japan, and then come back for a one- or two-week break before the next Super Rugby season. Central contracting allows you to look after the players.

‘When you think about it, where are the countries that have a central contracting system on the World Rugby Test rankings? At No 1, 2 and 3.

‘New Zealand’s elite players have a long break after the end-of-year tour. Their Super Rugby teams start slowly as a result, but get fitter and stronger as the year progresses. Eddie Jones has made a big thing about conditioning and managing a larger England squad. Even Ireland has embraced it.

‘A global season would solve a lot of the problems,’ Meyer continues. ‘You’d have three months of rest, like they do in the NFL, before going into a pre-season. It’s been shown that fatigued players are more susceptible to injuries. If and when a global season comes into place, we will see fewer players around the world sidelined with these sorts of injuries.

‘Again, it’s tough for SA Rugby to address this issue given the financial situation. If you don’t allow players to have these dual-contracts in South Africa and Japan, then they could go to Europe and miss out on Super Rugby completely. It’s a catch-22.’


Some players may opt to bypass the United Kingdom, Europe and Japan in the coming years. As Roux mentioned at the 2023 World Cup bid announcement last year, USA rugby is on the rise and more South Africans could join those ranks in the near future.

‘There are around 100 South African players involved in some shape or form in the US at present,’ says Gold, who has been with the Eagles since the start of 2018. ‘I expect that number to grow as rugby becomes bigger here.’

The Major League Rugby tournament will kick off in April this year. Seven teams will compete in the inaugural instalment, while as many as 12 could feature in 2019. The Crusaders have a stake in the team based in Seattle, while there are various private investors involved in teams across the States. A big broadcast deal is apparently in the offing, and as the popularity of the competition grows, so too will the earning potential for players.

Many South Africans have moved abroad with the aim of playing for an adopted Test team. Seven South African-born and schooled players were on show during the first three rounds of the 2018 Six Nations – Quinn Roux and CJ Stander for Ireland, Braam Steyn for Italy and David Denton, Cornell du Preez, Byron McGuigan and WP Nel for Scotland. Even the USA side competing in the Americas Rugby Championship boasted a strong South African flavour, with players like Marcel Brache, Jean-Pierre Eloff and Hanco Germishuys.

As many as 14 South Africans have represented Germany in Tests over the past 10 years. Seven have played for the USA between 2008 and 2017. Overall, there have been more South African players turning out for second- and third-tier nations than for the likes of England, France, Ireland and Scotland.

‘It’s impossible to say how far those players would have got in South Africa had they stayed here,’ says Roux. ‘Some players take longer to develop and reach their best. It can’t be denied that losing the “second rank” of players hurts our provincial depth as much as losing top internationals does the Springbok team, though.’

Roux believes the new residency rules will force national federations to think twice about contracting foreign players. He hopes to see fewer South African faces in opposition line-ups. Meyer and Gold agree; up to a point.

‘Fewer “middle-tier” players – those who are not youngsters or near the end of their careers – will leave South Africa,’ suggests Meyer. ‘Fewer of those players may be willing to put in five years to qualify for another nation.

‘Whether that will stop the really young players from going, and looking to graduate to other Test teams, is another story.’


Australia 16
England 79
France 104
Germany 9
Ireland 21
Italy 31
Japan 40
New Zealand 5
Romania 4
Scotland 9
Wales 14
Total 332

Source: 2018 SA Rugby Annual. Does not include players based in North America.


*Faf de Klerk (Sale, England)
James Hall (Oyonnax, France)
*Francois Hougaard (Worcester Warriors, England)
*Ricky Januarie (Agen, France)
Rory Kockott (Castres, France)
Kevin Luiters (Timisoara Saracens, Romania)
*Charl McLeod (Stade Francais, France)
*Ruan Pienaar (Montpellier, France)
Sarel Pretorius (Dragons, Wales)
*Cobus Reinach (Northampton Saints, England)
De Wet Roos (Brumbies, Australia)

*Meyer Bosman (Stade Francais, France)
Demetri Catrakilis (Harlequins, England)
Lionel Cronjé (Toyota Verblitz, Japan)
Willie du Plessis (Montpellier, France)
Louis Fouché (Kubota Spears, Japan)
Burton Francis (Grenoble, France)
*Johan Goosen (Montpellier, France)
*Peter Grant (Force, Australia)
Pat Lambie (Racing 92)
Jacques-Louis Potgieter (Perpignan, France)
*Frans Steyn (Montpellier, France)
*Morné Steyn (Stade Francais, France)
Jaco van der Walt (Edinburgh, Scotland)

*Indicates Springbok. All players here have Super Rugby experience.


Germany 14
Italy 8
Scotland 6
France 5
Ireland 5
Hong Kong 4
Portugal 4
Romania 4
England 3
Wales 3
Australia 2
Brazil  2
Japan  2
Arabian Gulf 1
Canada 1
Cyprus 1
Spain  1
Total  74

Note: Excludes those who have played Test rugby for Namibia and Zimbabwe.

– This article first appeared in the April 2018 issue of SA Rugby magazine. The May issue is on sale 23 April.


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Jon Cardinelli