Jake White says it’s time for SA Rugby to close the door to the Springbok squad on overseas-based players.
“Now is a good time, before the next contracting cycle, for SA Rugby to draw a line on picking players who are contracted to overseas clubs,” the Bulls director of rugby, who coached the Boks to glory at the 2007 Rugby World Cup, told SARugbymag.co.za.
“South Africa are world champions and SA Rugby did something that has worked because, in 2018 when Rassie Erasmus was appointed, the current cycle of Springbok players were all overseas. But we can’t allow that with the next cycle of players.”
In South Africa’s season-ending Test against England at Twickenham, there were 14 overseas-based players in the 23-man squad.
“South African franchises have basically become academies for overseas clubs,” said White. “Because the top senior talent is overseas, we play juniors from school who wouldn’t otherwise have been involved in senior rugby, and then when those youngsters are 21 or 22, they’ve got experience under the belt and the overseas clubs sign them and have them for the peak of their careers.”
While White applauded the short-term success of the current open doors policy, he expressed concern about the cost in the long run.
“I’ve got no doubt that the current model is working and some would say it’s helluva clever – SA Rugby gets overseas clubs to pay the salaries of the top national players and then they play for South Africa.
“As we’ve seen recently with the Toulon owner’s comments about Eben Etzebeth, the owners are waking up to it. Part of the reason these European clubs sign foreign talent is so they can stay competitive when they lose players to Six Nations call-ups.
“But, wearing my South African hat, how are we going to keep a player like Elrigh Louw in the country by allowing that? It says a lot that we are world champions, and Malcolm Marx is seen as one of the best players in the world, but we can’t find a way to have him playing in South Africa in front of a home crowd.”
Having recruited multiple South African players during his time as head coach of Montpellier, White is not blind to the significant pull of lucrative European contracts. However, he believes South Africa’s rugby system must resist becoming a feeder programme for overseas clubs.
“We’ve got to hit it on the head now because if you’re funding the game locally, how many players have to be playing overseas before you decide it’s not worth sponsoring the Currie Cup?”
The financial implications are obvious and White also believes the “ethos” of Springbok rugby will come under serious threat when schoolboys dream of a big-money contract overseas rather than representing South Africa.
“We mustn’t kill the goose that laid the golden egg. We’ve got such incredible schoolboy structures in South Africa and our saving grace is that we produce world-class players because we’ve got big schools like Grey Bloem where we’ve got 1,500 boys, and Paarl Gim coached by a former Springbok in Pieter Rossouw.
“The fact that we’ve got WP Nel and Pierre Schoeman playing for Scotland and Paul Willemse playing for France shows how many good players we have.
“It’s debatable whether they would have played for South Africa and so we’re never going to be able to keep everyone in the country. There were South Africans playing overseas when we won the World Cup in 1995 and 2007, but we weren’t encouraging them to leave by saying they can have their cake and eat it.
“I’ve worn that hat and it’s worked, bringing back Percy Montgomery from Wales and Bobby Skinstad from England so that every Bok was locally based when we won in 2007.
“One of the benefits is that you can have Bok alignment camps with everyone based in South Africa. And if you listen to what’s coming out of SA Rugby and the Springbok squad about how important the jersey is, and their emotional connection to the people of South Africa, then it shouldn’t be too much to ask the players to sacrifice playing overseas to represent their nation.”