Two announcements on Tuesday summed up the crippling imbalance in the modern game between the rand in South Africa and overseas currencies, writes BEN COLES in The Telegraph.
Handre Pollard, the Springboks’ No 1 flyhalf, following the World Cup will join Montpellier, the big-spending French club who are yet to actually win anything of significance (depending on your emotional investment in the Challenge Cup).
Pollard’s arrival feels like bad news for former All Blacks No 10 Aaron Cruden, heavily linked with Bath and Glasgow Warriors earlier in the year, with Montpellier hoping that Pollard will be more of a hit.
The club have signed enough South Africans in the last five years that if they opted to relocate to the Western Cape nobody would bat an eyelid. Pardon this obvious statement, but Pollard is an excellent flyhalf, ranking among the top five in world rugby and naturally worth a mega salary.
A salary that no side in South Africa can ever dream of matching if Pollard is earning anywhere close to the figure that has been reported, over £1m per season. This is triple his current contract with the Vodacom Bulls.
To offset the obviously disappointing news that Pollard would be moving on, the Bulls announced that Morne Steyn, a key part of their three Vodacom Super Rugby title wins in four years between 2007-2010, will be returning to Pretoria next season.
Steyn will be 35 by the time the 2020 Super Rugby season gets under way, having left to make his fortune with Stade Francais six years ago.
Pollard is now doing the same at the age of 25, leaving South Africa in his prime. Steyn, on the other hand, is returning home in the twilight of his career after spending some of his best years in France.
That is a concerning pattern, the idea that the best Springboks will spend the early and latter parts of their career in South Africa before quite understandably maximising their peak years abroad for more money.
It also partly explains why Super Rugby crowds have dropped dramatically over the last decade, aside from the competition’s convoluted format. Fewer than 7,500 turned up at 50,000-plus Loftus Versfeld the other week for a game against the Waratahs.
What happens next year when not only Pollard, but Lood de Jager (Sale), Jesse Kriel (Japan, Canon Eagles) and RG Snyman (Japan, Honda Heat) all leave the Bulls and move overseas?
South African players heading abroad is hardly a new concept, but the gap between what the rand can offer compared to the pound or euro or yen now feels completely disproportionate.
The South African Rugby Union feared this situation around the time of the 2015 Rugby World Cup, hence the introduction at the time of a new 30-cap rule for any players who were considering plying their trade overseas.
That move, as we know, backfired spectacularly, with the Springboks’ two-year losing run between 2016-2017 costing Allister Coetzee his job. But SARU had to try something to keep the best Springboks playing in South Africa, otherwise Super Rugby crowds would dwindle away and the game would suffer.
Rassie Erasmus, who replaced Coetzee, instantly relaxed the rule and results have picked up, with the impact of Toulouse star Cheslin Kolbe in the win over in New Zealand in Wellington being a good example of the benefits of picking the best South Africans, regardless of which country they play in.
Except, Kolbe is not coming home any time soon from Toulouse. Nor is Pollard, or Faf de Klerk at Sale.
In fact, using that side who defeated the All Blacks away from home as an example, nearly half of that 23-man squad will be based outside South Africa next season: Willie le Roux (Japan), Kriel, Pollard, De Klerk, Eben Etzebeth (Toulon), Franco Mostert (Gloucester), Snyman, Francois Louw (Bath) and Kolbe. In other words, a lot of star power based overseas.
Not forgetting Sale’s heavy South African recruitment over the last two seasons, with De Klerk, Jono Ross and Rohan Janse van Rensburg set to be joined by the three Du Preez brothers – Jean-Luc, Dan and Robert – plus Akker van der Merwe, Coenie Oosthuizen and De Jager.
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Selecting those players based overseas improves the Springboks, but hinders the domestic teams. Implement a cap rule to try and keep the top talent in the country to strengthen the Super Rugby sides, and players may leave anyway to take up lucrative contracts, making them unavailable for the national side.
South African rugby finds itself bashing off one wall only to collide into another, without an obvious solution.
The new contract model announced in February – widening the Springbok player pool to create more top-up payments from SARU to the provinces, enforcing World Rugby Regulation 9 rules to get more time with their overseas players (almost in a bid to put off foreign clubs from signing Springbok players) – came with a stark message from Erasmus.
What a grim reality that is. You can hardly blame Pollard, but his move and the wider significance is all somewhat distressing.
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