The question is not whether the Springboks need precious input from overseas-based stars, but how many is too many, writes JON CARDINELLI.
South Africa’s tour to Europe in November 2014 will be remembered for the wrong reasons. The Boks lost the first Test to Ireland by an embarrassing 14-point margin. They beat England and Italy in subsequent weeks, but then suffered a defeat to Wales in Cardiff.
The fourth and final Test of the tour was staged outside the World Rugby-sanctioned window. The match at the Millennium Stadium was supposed to be a watered-down affair, with both teams competing without the stars based at foreign clubs.
However, Wales managed to strike a deal with the relevant French clubs and secure the release of several big-name players. A powerful Wales outfit took on a weakened Bok team, and claimed their second-ever Test victory against South Africa. The final score was 12-6 in Wales’ favour.
Eleven months later, in the 2015 World Cup quarter-final at Twickenham, a Bok side with all of its overseas-based assets available beat Wales 23-19. It was an especially satisfying win for the Bok management considering what had transpired in Cardiff the previous year.
In a perfect world, the national coach would have the power to select his best possible side for the duration of the Test season. In a perfect world, there would be a global season in which major club competitions and premier Test tournaments did not take place simultaneously.
Maybe perfect is the wrong word. Let us rather say that if common sense prevailed, a global season would be in place. As a result, there would be fewer arguments between clubs and national teams regarding the use of elite players.
Until that comes to pass, the overseas-player issue will remain a complicated one. Over the past four years, there have been a number of examples of overseas-based Boks missing Test matches that fall outside the international window. On top of that, there have been instances of those based in Japan being managed to ensure that they don’t play more than six or seven Tests in a calendar year.
With this is mind, one can understand why SA Rugby would take steps to discourage South African players who may have ambitions of representing the Boks from taking up contracts overseas. At the same time, one cannot advocate an absolute ban on elite South African players plying their trade abroad.
Indeed, it's that very experience of spending time in a foreign environment among some of the best coaches and players on the planet that aids the development of South Africa’s elite players. When they return to the national team, they lend the Bok collective something extra.
Bath-based Francois Louw returned to the Bok set-up in late 2012. He was streets ahead of any of the other openside contenders at the breakdown, and his knowledge of European conditions often saw him mentoring other players on the nuances of the northern hemisphere game as well as the region's referees.
Fourie du Preez, who won every trophy on offer at provincial and Test levels between 2004 and 2011, said it was a journey to Japan that forced him to improve his attacking game. When he returned to the Boks in 2013, he shared his experiences with the players and management and this aided the team’s development.
These are but two examples of overseas-based players making a significant contribution to the team over the past four years. SA Rugby would be foolish to ban the selection of overseas players in the next four years, as it would prevent this dissemination of information and skills that local coaches and players may not have access to in South Africa.
Allister Coetzee will be unveiled as the new Bok coach on Tuesday. Already there is talk about the candidates for the captaincy, and already there are those who are stating that geography should be a primary consideration. In short, SA Rugby wants a captain who is based in South Africa and not in Europe or Japan.
One can appreciate this view in the sense that a captain must be available for all the Tests in a calendar year, regardless of whether they fall in the international window. One cannot have a captain leaving mid-tour or mid-tournament because he has completed his seven Tests for the calendar year and must head back to Japan.
But surely a deal that frees up the relevant candidate is not impossible to negotiate? If Wales managed to wrangle a deal that allowed Jamie Roberts to face the Boks in November 2014, surely the suits at SA Rugby could do something similar to free up Duane Vermeulen from Toulon?
Vermeulen remains the outstanding candidate for the Springbok captaincy. Leaders such as Jean de Villiers, Victor Matfield and Fourie du Preez have all moved on in the wake of the 2015 World Cup, and the ageing Schalk Burger will be taking up a contract with Saracens later this year.
The 2016 season represents the start of a new era, and the Boks will need a strong leader to take them forward. Meyer has often spoken about Vermeulen’s aptitude for the role, and on the basis of the player’s physical and mental attributes, he should be given the responsibility.
The alternative is to hand the captaincy to a less deserving candidate based in South Africa. This, of course, is problematic, as it may create a situation whereby a player who is not the best in his position is leading the Boks.
England were widely criticised in 2015 for ignoring the performances of openside flank Steffon Armitage, who was based in France, and persisting with their home-based captain Chris Robshaw. Until they change the policy, they will continue to struggle against the better southern hemisphere nations.
It’s time the South African administration as well as some sectors of the public changed their view on players based abroad. Those players who excel in the United Kingdom, France and Japan should be viewed as potential assets for the Boks.
The very best among that group should be brought into the national side with the aim of sharing ideas and strengthening the collective. To believe that the Boks can excel without any overseas-based players in their ranks is just naive.
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