The United Rugby Championship promises a new dawn for South African rugby. It also ramps up the need to stem the tide of players leaving these shores, writes ZELIM NEL.
South Africa’s move to a European competition is at least five years overdue. It’s been obvious for even longer that the Republic was the overly gracious host in a southern-hemisphere alliance with Australia and New Zealand, neither of whom ever stuck around to help with the dishes after an annual eat-and-run.
While the playing fields look to have been levelled with the advent of the URC, the new competition will confront South Africa with an old problem in a way that Super Rugby never did.
We’re roughly a decade into the exodus of top players to foreign clubs – pulled by higher earning opportunities in the United Kingdom, Ireland, France and Japan, and pushed by SA’s selection politics, declining economy and soaring crime rate.
The impact of the withdrawal of this talent from Super Rugby has been more keenly felt with each passing year. In 2010, the Bulls and Stormers topped the standings and contested the final; only one SA team had a winning record in 2018 and 2019 – the 9-7 Lions and the 8-2-6 Bulls, respectively.
There are roughly 150 South Africans contracted to premier clubs in Europe and, together with the contingent in Japan, it would be possible to fully stock the Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers for duty in the United Rugby Championship without calling up a single SA-based player.
This was also true in the final years of Super Rugby, but a key difference was that none of these players were lining up for the opposition. When the Test window closes and the United Rugby Championship teams are reinforced by their internationals, Springbok centre Damian de Allende and lock RG Snyman will line up for Munster, former Stormer Oli Kebble fronts the Glasgow scrum and there are a quartet of SA props at Edinburgh, along with former Lions flyhalf Jaco van der Walt.
And if the hopes of Champions Cup qualification are realised in the 2022-23 season, SA’s leading franchises will likely cross paths with teams from the French and English premier leagues, many of which are home to the current world champions.
Eben Etzebeth and now Cheslin Kolbe represent Top 14 giants Toulon, while Rynhardt Elstadt is at Toulouse and Handre Pollard pulls the strings for Montpellier where Nico Janse van Rensburg jumps in the lineout.
In England, Lood de Jager is one of a host of South Africans at Sale, including Akker van der Merwe, Coenie Oosthuizen, JP du Preez, Cobus Wiese, Faf de Klerk, Rohan Janse van Rensburg and the three Du Preez brothers – Robert, Dan and Jean-Luc.
The Leicester pack boasts Jasper Wiese, Marco van Staden, Cyle Brink and Hanro Liebenberg among several other South Africans. Wilco Louw, Stephan Lewies, Andre Esterhuizen and Tyrone Green are at champions Harlequins, while Jacques Vermeulen and Jannes Kirsten are contracted to losing finalists Exeter.
There are many reasons to celebrate the move from a destructive Super Rugby relationship to the riches of Europe, but one downfall is that it does heighten the urgency for SA Rugby to meliorate conditions for local talent.
Rugby in the Republic relies on lucrative deals with commercial partners for its survival, and the value of the premium they can exact from those partners is directly linked to on-field success.
SA Rugby will achieve the closest thing to soccer’s own goal every time a South African player scores a try for a European club against the Bulls, Lions, Sharks or Stormers in the United Rugby Championship.