SARugbymag.co.za identifies six of the greatest South African exports to European clubs in recent history.
Ruan Pienaar to Ulster (2010-17)
When Pienaar signed for the Irish club from the Sharks in 2010, he was already an established, internationally capped player.
And the class and quality that elevated him to Test rugby was on full display in his debut for Ulster, when he scored all 19 points in their 19-17 win over the Glasgow Warriors to help Ulster maintain their perfect start to the PRO12 season.
That performance set the tone for the rest of Pienaar’s tenure at Ulster. He went on to make 141 appearances and score 877 points in a magnificent seven-year career in Belfast, where he was – and still is –revered and loved long after his departure.
This much was evident by his emotional, tear-filled farewell in 2017 and the hero’s welcome he received when he returned to Kingspan Stadium with the Cheetahs in 2020.
🎬 It was an emotional farewell for Ruan Pienaar yesterday… pic.twitter.com/iyLf1tKdgw
— Ulster Rugby (@UlsterRugby) May 7, 2017
Ashley Johnson to Wasps (2012-20)
A product of famed rugby school Paarl Gim, Johnson played professionally for the Cheetahs on the home front between 2007 and 2012. During that period, he earned three Test caps for the Springboks before signing for Wasps.
Johnson became an instant favourite among Wasps fans, with his bulldozing runs and powerful tackling. While he started his career as a loose forward, he seamlessly transitioned to hooker in the 2014-15 season and continued to alternate between the two positions.
He spent eight years at the the Premiership club, scoring 42 tries and came within two caps of making 200 appearances for Wasps.
While head coach Lee Blackett hailed Johnson as one of the best signings in the club’s history, certain factions of the English media have singled Johnson out as arguably the greatest foreign signing in Premiership history.
144 – Trevor Leota (147) is the only overseas player with more @premrugby appearances for @WaspsRugby than Ashley Johnson (144), the South African has made 1,068 tackles in his time at Wasps, the most of any player at the club since his debut in 2012. Legend. pic.twitter.com/GQz3Fl142D
— OptaJonny (@OptaJonny) June 11, 2020
CJ Stander to Munster (2012-present)
It’s well documented that Stander was deemed too small, but his move to Munster and subsequent rise into the Ireland and British & Irish Lions Test squads have proved that he is anything but too small to be successful.
Like Pienaar, Stander made an impressive start to his career at his new club, scoring two tries on debut against the Glasgow Warriors. Since then, he has accumulated 42 tries (210 points) in 150 appearances for the club.
During the 2014-15 European season, Stander won a record seven man-of-the-match awards, a feat culminating in him being named as Munster Player of the Year in April 2015, becoming the first overseas player to be awarded the accolade. He was also included in the 2014-15 PRO12 Dream Team.
He became the first player to claim the Munster Player of the Year award for the second year in succession in May 2016, after scoring seven tries in 21 appearances, and captaining the side on 18 occasions. He also picked up four man-of-the-match awards during the season, and was again named in the PRO12 Dream Team.
Adding to his unprecedented collection of accolades for foreign players, Stander was named the Rugby Writers Ireland Player of the Year and nominated for European Player of the Year in 2017 before earning selection for the British & Irish Lions tour of New Zealand.
He has been a star performer for Munster in every season since joining the squad and has been in every Ireland Test squad since he qualified for selection in 2016. Stander is currently Ireland’s first-choice eighthman.
CJ Stander’s Munster Stats 18/19 💪
— Jared Wright (@jaredwright17) June 25, 2019
Cobus Reinach to Northampton Saints (2017-20)
If ever there was a cult hero in English club rugby, it’s Reinach at the Northampton Saints.
Throughout his three-year career at Saints, Reinach scored more tries, beat more defenders and made more clean breaks and run metres than any other scrumhalf in Premiership rugby. Or, simply put, he was one of the most influential players in England and most certainly the most important player for Northampton.
He played an integral role in the turn of fortunes at Franklin’s Gardens, rubber-stamping his place as a Saints supporters favourite with 31 tries in just 76 appearances and winning the club’s Players’ and Supporters’ Player of the Year awards in 2019.
😥 “You guys are the heart of the team. It’s been one hell of a ride.”
Not the farewell he deserves, but an emotional goodbye from @c_reinach.
Once a Saint, always a Saint #1981 pic.twitter.com/sv4lqdDPCX
— Northampton Saints 😇 (@SaintsRugby) June 3, 2020
Duhan van der Merwe to Edinburgh (2017-present)
Van der Merwe took a road less travelled to the top, having initially left South African shores for Montpellier. But the move didn’t work out due to his then-recurring injury problems and his battle to settle into French culture.
Despite the injury concerns, he was signed by Edinburgh in 2017 and the bulky wing immediately repaid the faith showed in him and affirmed his popularity with 10 tries in his debut season. He continued his fine form and was voted PRO14 Players’ Player of the Season for the 2019-20 campaign.
Since then, Van der Merwe has played 64 times for the club and scored 31 tries (155 points). He has arguably been the best and most consistent player in Scottish rugby and in the PRO14 in general. His form was rewarded with selection in Scotland’s Autumn Nations Cup squad after qualifying for his adopted country in June 2020.
He has played in six Tests between December 2020 and now, and has crossed the tryline four times.
It was recently confirmed that Van der Merwe will leave Edinburgh for the Worcester Warriors at the end of the current European season. But, while his stint at the Scottish club was short, the 25-year-old made a lasting impact at Edinburgh.
Cheslin Kolbe to Toulouse (2017-present)
Whether or not there has been a more exciting player in Toulouse colours than Kolbe is debatable. But that he is the club’s most prized asset is undoubtable.
With his lethal sidestepping ability and blistering pace, Kolbe has produced one dazzling man-of-the-match performance after the other for Toulouse. He has also successfully exhibited his versatility, playing fullback, wing, centre, flyhalf, scrumhalf and No 8 for the club during several injuries crises.
It was his unmatched exploits that inspired Toulouse to the French Top 14 league title in 2019, their first in seven years.
He has won every single possible individual award available to him and continues to outwit defenders with his dazzling footwork and creativity that should have been neutralised by now – yet does exactly that.
No, your eyes do not deceive you. That is Cheslin Kolbe packing down at no.8 🚀 pic.twitter.com/jdfecUDDEo
— The Rugby Paper (@TheRugbyPaper) May 6, 2019
— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) January 11, 2020
‘How’s Cheslin Kolbe getting on as a No.10?’
Fine. Just fine! 🎯pic.twitter.com/Og4URnd8ui
— Pat McCarry (@patmccarry) February 16, 2020
Just a reminder that Cheslin Kolbe is an outstanding rugby player 😳🔥pic.twitter.com/SxsjrPJ9L5
— Ultimate Rugby (@ultimaterugby) February 26, 2020
Photo: Getty Images