The fear of losing top South African players to Japan is irrational, writes RYAN VREDE.
In a Fourie du Preez feature I wrote for SA Rugby magazine in 2013, I said: 'Du Preez’s departure for Japan was met with lamentation from the South African rugby fraternity. The reality is that Japan gave Du Preez back to the Springboks. At Suntory he rediscovered his love for the game and a competitive spirit …'
I went on to detail Du Preez's thoughts on how the move to Suntory had refreshed him mentally, physically (in the Top League Du Preez plays significantly fewer matches at a significantly lower intensity than he would in South Africa) and technically. On the last point he commented: 'In fact, playing in Japan has made me a better player, which is the opposite effect to what people thought it would have. The game in Japan is faster than in the south and the pressure they exert on the breakdowns forces you to adapt your game.'
He spoke about glowing in terms of his tactical intelligence after being extracted from the rigid Bulls system and working daily with Eddie Jones, and about the inspiring effect of encountering and bedding into a new, completely different culture.
That interview, coupled with Du Preez's strong performances in the Rugby Championship, forced me to revisit my position on this issue, which had been similar to the prevailing one in the South African rugby fraternity. If a stint in Japan can re-invigorate one of the game's greats to such an (exhibitable) extent, surely it demands that we gain some perspective on it.
My colleague Jon Cardinelli on Thursday reported that 69-Test Springboks flank Schalk Burger was contemplating furthering his career in Japan. I predict the overriding response to that report will range between deep lamentation and outrage at a player perceived to be chasing one final big payday. I don't agree. Certainly Burger would be paid handsomely if he signed, but there are benefits for the Springboks as well.
He has just turned 30, hardly the twilight of his career. Burger has served the Springboks with distinction and has ambitions to continue to do so. He is expected to earn his recall by excelling for the Stormers. But what if there was a different route to the same destination, one equally beneficial to player and country?
It would be naive to expect Burger's story to mimic Du Preez's exactly. But there is every chance it could. Like Du Preez, Burger has only ever known one province, one culture, one ethos, one city he called home. A change could and probably will give him back to the Springboks with increased potency. The alternative is that we stubbornly hold on to a national treasure but watch its value decrease steadily until we no longer find use for him, casting him aside in favour of the next big thing.
Sometimes you have to lose to gain. This is as true in rugby as it is in other areas of life.
Photo: Steve Hagg/Gallo Images