Player drain’s paralysing effect

The domestic game faces the crippling impact of the ever-increasing player drain as Springboks and the best local talent pack their bags for moves abroad, writes JOHN GOLIATH.

Big money deals in Europe and Japan will stunt the growth of promising young players.

South African rugby players have become citizens of the world. You can find one in almost every country where the sport is played. Chris Cloete made his name in Sri Lanka not too long ago.

The best ones, though, have made the United Kingdom and France their home, while many seem to like Japan.

More players are set to leave these shores at the end of this year’s World Cup. This despite SA Rugby announcing a new contract system that will see more players benefiting financially in 2020. Key Boks such as Eben Etzebeth (Toulon), Handré Pollard (Montpellier), Jesse Kriel (Canon Eagles), Lood de Jager (Sale Sharks) and Coenie Oosthuizen (Sale Sharks) have decided to leave our shores in the prime of their careers to take up contracts overseas. And of course, for the handsome payday that follows.

SA Rugby continues to fight a losing battle as the weak Rand, combined with the spending power of foreign clubs, has given the country’s administrators a bloody nose time and time again. But they have also sabotaged themselves by changing their policy almost on an annual basis since discarding the rule that no player plying his trade overseas may play for the Springboks.

Just over decade ago, most Springboks heading overseas were looking for one last payday to boost their pension fund before being put out to pasture. This was after many of them had enjoyed distinguished Vodacom Super Rugby and international careers. Other players, who felt that they didn’t have a realistic shot at Bok colours, made their way abroad. You couldn’t begrudge players who fell into either category.

When the rule prohibiting overseas-based players wearing the green-and-gold was still in place, Springbok rugby was strong, with the Vodacom Bulls winning Super Rugby in 2007, 2009 and 2010, and the Boks winning the 2007 World Cup. Peter de Villiers’ South African side beat the British and Irish Lions 2-1 and claimed three consecutive wins over the All Blacks in 2009.

However, the player drain started gaining momentum after the 2011 World Cup, basically forcing SA Rugby into allowing overseas-based players to represent the Boks. Then, after a mass exodus of players after the 2015 edition, came 2017’s 30-cap rule when Allister Coetzee’s side whitewashed France 3-0 with only one overseas-player in the squad.

That rule, though, almost lasted as long as Coetzee’s tenure, with Rassie Erasmus being granted carte blanche to select his squads.

The new contract system was announced in February, but still SA Rugby has been unable to stop the bleeding. The direct short-term result will be seen in the competitiveness, or lack thereof, of South Africa’s Super Rugby teams next year.

The Bulls have been gutted. Eight players, including six Springboks, have confirmed their exits from Loftus. And that’s just the start when considering the overall picture.

‘It’s hard to know what the numbers are until we know for sure how many players leave at the end of the season,’ Erasmus said earlier this year.

‘It’s going to take about two or three years to reap the benefits of this [new] model. We’re going to take a bit of a knock initially after the World Cup.’

But at the moment the ‘knock’ seems an overhand right to the jaw. And the knees of rugby in South Africa have started to buckle.

Erasmus also confirmed that from 2020 SA Rugby will enforce World Rugby’s Regulation 9, which means players who are plying their trade abroad will have to be released for international duty during the designated windows.

But while those players will be available for the Boks, who is going stay behind and mentor the new crop of youngsters coming through in the domestic game? Many young players will be thrown into the deep end and will more than likely struggle for air.

The quality of the Currie Cup has been diluted, because the Boks don’t feature, and there is a real possibility that Super Rugby will follow a similar path if the country’s best players are playing in the Northern Hemisphere.

It’s almost like running a hospital full of interns. There will be many mistakes, that may lead to many casualties in the end.

Quality and experience breeds more quality. It’s a fact.The Springboks might still be strong next year, but the next generation of starlets may take more than ‘two to three years’ become international players because of the ‘brawn drain’.

Photo: Muzi Ntombela/BackpagePix

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