From the mag: South African takeover

South African players are littered throughout the English Premiership. DANIEL GALLAN investigates the impact of these Saffa imports in England.

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As many as 25 South Africans took part in the opening round of the new English Premiership season. They played a combined 1 641 minutes and occupied every position on the field except for fullback. Of the 12 teams in the league, only three were without South African representation, although the Exeter Chiefs and Newcastle Falcons each have three Saffas on their books.

London Irish and Bristol Bears are the only clubs in England’s top flight without one of our countrymen in their ranks.

It is a bewildering understatement to say that South Africans have had a telling impact on the English game. One could easily make the case that apart from the remaining Home Nations of Scotland, Wales and Ireland, no other country has left as great a mark on English rugby. It is not incredulous to stretch that further and argue that South Africa tops even England’s closest neighbours in this regard.

‘The South African contribution on the Premiership has been extremely positive,’ says Alan Solomons, the Uitenhage native who has served as Worcester Warriors’ director of rugby since 2017. ‘You can see the great impact they had at Saracens and you can see the definite impact they’re having at Sale Sharks today. But they’re spread around and always have been. It’s been really positive.’

There was a time when Saracens were nicknamed ‘Saffacens’ and it wasn’t meant as a compliment. When Brendan Venter was appointed director of rugby in 2009, he enacted a ruthless cull of 18 players within 48 hours that some fans dubbed ‘the night of the long knives’.

In the vacuum he had created, Venter sought to fill it with players whose accents carried the same baritone growl that is bequeathed only upon those reared on Africa’s southern tip.

Not that Venter cared what the critics had to say. After inheriting a side that had finished eighth and ninth the previous two campaigns, he hauled Saracens to third on the log and eventually to the final where they lost to Leicester Tigers who were the dominant team in the land, having won six of the last 11 seasons.

Alongside scrumhalf Neil de Kock and centre Brad Barritt, who had already made north-west London their home in 2006 and 2008 respectively, Venter would add front rowers Petrus du Plessis and Schalk Brits, lock Mouritz Botha, loose forwards Ernst Joubert and Justin Melck as well as the liefling of Loftus, flyhalf Derick Hougaard.

For good measure, he also recruited former Namibian captain Jacques Burger.

‘It was an incredible time,’ says Brits, who cemented his status as a legend of the club after nine years of service, playing 216 games and scoring 37 tries.

‘Joining Saracens when I did was the best decision I ever made. It was the first time in my rugby career that I didn’t feel like a commodity or a piece of meat you’d find at the butcher. I was sceptical because every team says things like, “We’re family”, but they turf you out as soon as you’re injured or lose form. Saracens stuck with me throughout the ups and downs and it was an honour to play for them.’

As if to emphasise the metamorphosis that was taking place, Saracens beat a touring Springbok side in November 2009 by a single point, courtesy of a late Hougaard drop goal at Wembley.

Venter would not see the end of the 2010-11 season but the team would lift their first Premiership title. That victory, fuelled in no small part by the strength of South African muscle, would provide the foundations for one of world rugby’s great dynasties.

In the intervening years, Saracens would claim four league titles, one domestic cup and three European Cups before the recent salary-cap scandal saw them relegated to the second division for the 2020-21 season.

But the saga of South African involvement did not end there. Even before the fall of Saracens, another club had started hoarding Saffas. Under coach Steve Diamond, a man who played 351 times for Sale Sharks over 11 years, a club that had not finished higher than fifth since winning the title in 2006 was taking a leaf out of Saracens’ playbook.

‘The best thing about my South African boys, apart from them being quality players who bring that physicality we expect with them, is that we don’t need to wipe their backsides when they arrive,’ says Diamond, who recently announced his departure from Sale.

‘They sort themselves out with houses and cars, they adapt to the culture quickly, they get on with it. Players from other countries need the bottle in their mouth. These guys are rugby people. It’s in their blood. They take care of everything else.’

Brian Mujati played 35 times for Sale between 2015 and 2017, but the Saffa revolution really took off when Jono Ross and Faf de Klerk joined before the 2017-18 season. Both players were offered a lifeline by Diamond who promised to help revive their flailing careers.

‘Before he came here, Faf was sitting on the bench or playing on the wing for the Lions,’ Diamond says. ‘Jono had become a journeyman. I told Faf he’d be a superstar over here and he wouldn’t have to a change a thing. I saw Jono had leadership qualities to him. It took off from there.’

Diamond explains that he picks his players’ brains when shopping for new recruits. ‘Why wouldn’t I?’ he asks, as if it’s the most obvious strategy in the world.
‘I don’t need someone to tell me if a player is any good. But you need people who know them to say if they’re a good bloke and will fit in with the culture.’

Since Ross and De Klerk, nine more South Africans have signed with Sale. All have been vetted by their predecessors which in part explains why three Du Preez brothers – Robert, Daniel and Jean-Luc – are regulars
in the side.

There are now so many of them that the occasional shout of ‘in English please’ can be heard whenever too many calls are made in Afrikaans. It’s got so bad that the team’s head chef has implemented a ban on the word ‘braai’ insisting the anglicised ‘barbecue’ is used instead. Diamond has even picked up a few Afrikaans words, but none can be printed here.

Sale’s success has not been immediate. They’ve yet to make the league playoffs under Diamond but a Premiership Cup win in September, the club’s first trophy for 14 years, is a step in the right direction.

Of course, not everyone is pleased by this new normal. Coaches in South Africa must lie awake at night fearful that an important player will be lured by the pull of a favourable rand-pound exchange rate. Similarly, young English prospects toiling away through the junior ranks must wonder if a burly biltong-eater will swoop in and curtail their progress.

Solomons is quick to douse any concerns: ‘South Africans have personally benefited from playing in the Premiership, which is the toughest domestic competition in the world, but so have many others,’ the former Western Province and Eastern Province coach says. ‘It’s helped the Springboks. Look at the impact De Klerk’s kicking game, which he improved dramatically over here, had on the World Cup win.’

The number of South Africans in England compared to players from other powerhouses such as New Zealand, Australia and France has been contingent on the United Kingdom’s relationship with the European Union, and simple economics.

Like cricketers, they have been able to circumnavigate the Premiership’s limit of two overseas players per match-day 23 because of this legal loophole which accounts for the comparable dearth of Australians and Frenchmen. South Africans are also ‘much cheaper than New Zealanders’, according to Diamond, which partly explains the relative lack of All Blacks in England.

Brexit will change so much in the UK, not least this portal connecting rugby players and clubs across the globe. So if we are in the last vestiges of an era where South Africans have been ubiquitous throughout English rugby, it is a good time to reflect on the impact they have made.

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Craig Lewis