If it goes on like this, no Boks at all will stick around in SA
Until recently the steady stream of players north, but also to Japan, was concerning but not a crisis
“South African rugby player signs overseas deal” is no longer a headline that shocks. It hasn’t done for more than a decade. At most it elicits a shrug of the shoulders.
But there has been a shift in 2019, even in this time of substantial player migration. The number of SA players fleeing their country is torrential.
Until recently the steady stream of players north, but also to Japan, was concerning but not a crisis. Like a river flowing heavily but well within the boundaries of the flood plain, it was manageable and part of the fabric of local rugby.
But, almost overnight it seems, that strong flow has burst the banks as SA players – young, old, capped Boks, uncapped Boks and schoolboys – seem to be heading out of the country as fast as visas are processed.
This week Sale Sharks named Jean-Luc and Daniel du Preez as their two latest SA acquisitions, albeit initially on short-term contracts. That brings the total of South Africans at Sale to double figures. And that’s just one club.
The authoritative SA Rugby Annual has long kept a list of SA players playing abroad and the list has always been sizeable.
In the 2019 edition, which covers rugby played throughout the 2018 calendar year, the number of South Africans who played abroad for some part of the year – not necessarily the entire 12 months – was a staggering 276.
Of those, 51 are capped Springboks and another 30 have played Test rugby for another nation (including former Lions flyhalf Jody Rose who has represented Romania), having served residency or qualified through lineage.
Every four years the stream of players moving overseas strengthens in a post-World Cup landscape. But in 2019 it is even more pronounced.
Lood de Jager, Eben Etzebeth, Handré Pollard, Coenie Oosthuizen and Jesse Kriel, five players almost guaranteed to be in the World Cup squad in Japan, have already revealed they are leaving after the Japan showpiece. And there will be more.
But the likes of the Du Preez twins, with long careers ahead of them, testing the waters overseas is another cause for concern.
The general belief is that players head to clubs in the UK, France and Japan primarily for money. There have been few studies done to test what is a plausible theory.
Top internationals such as De Jager, Pollard and Etzebeth will naturally attract big money offers, but an increasing number of provincial-standard players are leaving. They will not be on very different contracts to what they are earning in SA.
So there must be more to the migration than simply earning potential?
Increasingly, SA players are performing to near empty stadiums. SA’s cavernous stadiums are barely populated for games, creating zero atmosphere, whereas Europe’s smaller stadiums are almost always at capacity, adding to the playing experience.
The type of game played, particularly in the northern hemisphere, placing greater demands on physicality and strength, also suits SA’s traditional style. It’s one of the reasons the clubs want SA players and why SA players want to play up north.Another theory is that players are being driven away by SA Rugby’s transformation policies. Very few of the South Africans playing overseas are non-white, so there might be some merit to the idea, although there is no evidence to back it up.The only considered study done on the mass migration of SA players was by a young lawyer, Rais Frost, who did his MBA thesis on the subject. Frost’s data was collected several years ago and, if he redid it now, it might show slightly different trends (as mentioned above). But at the time (in 2016/17) his conclusions were that money and transformation/quotas were not the driving force behind mass player migration.He found that for older players (those about 30 and above) it was because the system in SA rugby deemed them past their prime. Frost cites several examples of older players such as Dan Carter and Richie McCaw, 34 and 33 respectively at RWC 2015, as pivotal in the All Blacks’ success. But SA’s older players didn’t feel as valued.
Another big factor was the travel schedule SA players endure. Super Rugby makes physiological demands on players that are not sustainable and the prospect of playing in a small geographical area such as the UK and France is attractive. There were other factors such as the pressure from fans and media in SA and the lopsided nature of tournaments such as Super Rugby.When all these factors are added up, together with SA Rugby’s lenient selection policy on overseas-based players being eligible for the Boks, there are few incentives for ambitious players to stay behind. Let the river flow.