The Springbok team sheet for yesterday’s test against Argentina was inhabited by a goodly smattering of names that haven’t been mentioned in local rugby for some time.
From France there were players from Toulon, Stade Francais, Toulouse and Racing Metro. From Northern Ireland there was a man employed by Ulster. From England there was a Bath signing and from Japan there was a hero from Suntory Sungoliath.
It meant that a third of the run-on team, plus two more players in the reserves, are based overseas, simultaneously encapsulating what is both a reality and an enormous threat to South African rugby.
Of these, Ruan Pienaar (Ulster), Gurthrö Steenkamp (Toulouse), Francois Louw (Bath) and Fourie du Preez (Japan) have plied their trades in foreign teams for some time but Bryan Habana (Toulon), Morné Steyn (Stade Francais) and Juandré Kruger (Racing Metro) have left only recently.
Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer was left with a dilemma – pick the foreign-based players to ensure some continuity and retention of the work done in the three tests against Italy, Scotland and Samoa in June or cut the ties and start rebuilding a new team.
The second option is, of course, the rule that supposedly has to be followed in keeping with Saru’s statutes – ie that to be eligible for Springbok selection players must be taken up in South African sides – but Meyer was already allowed the dispensation of bringing back Pienaar and Louw and he took it a step further by sending for Du Preez and Steenkamp too.
The coach’s predicament is clear – he has to win test matches against Argentina, the All Blacks and the Wallabies and that would be hard to do without (what he considers to be) his best side.
Saru’s “home-based only” rule was first circumvented by Jake White when he recalled Percy Montgomery from Wales and, later on, other players to help him in a quest that would result in South Africa winning the Rugby World Cup in Paris in 2007. The regulation was also relaxed for Peter de Villiers.
It was tacitly understood that an SOS to a player overseas could only be sent in a “dire-need” situation, but the sudden emigration of an unusually large number of players after the Super Rugby competition forced Meyer’s hand and it is clear he convinced/begged Saru to permit him to all but waive the domestic rugby clause.
And such was Meyer’s belief in the players he needed to recall from their clubs that he took the additional risk of including not only some who had not seen any action for some time but could also only join his training squad on the Sunday before yesterday’s test.
Fourie du Preez had not played since late February (and that in the Japanese club final), Steenkamp since the French season ended in May. Pienaar and Louw last played in the June tests and Kruger made an early exit from Super Rugby and did not play in the Bulls’ last few matches.
Duane Vermeulen was pushed straight back into test rugby after recovering from a serious knee injury suffered on May 11.
Up against an unfavourable exchange rate – a French newspaper claimed Habana is earning €50 000 (R670 000) a month at Toulon – South African rugby is always hard-pressed to plug the hole in the dyke, but Meyer’s latest selections may have removed whatever impediments remained to leaving.
It used to be that players hung on because they wanted to become Springboks, or play in a World Cup, but now it seems they will sign for the overseas bucks and take their chances.
New Zealand are the only nation who have stuck to the home-based only rule – even when they desperately needed Carl Hayman and Nick Evans in the last World Cup – and in the long-term the Boks might have been better off doing the same thing.
Meyer may end up ruing not developing a second tier while he had the chance as, in a year or two’s time, he might have very few Boks left who are based in South Africa.
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