In some ways, South African rugby mirrors the economy, dealing in exports based on the relative weakness of the Rand. But the landscape may soon shift, with proposed changes to European competitions set to curb the demand for foreign players.
With France, Wales and Ireland already looking at caps on foreigners, and Japan to follow, there will be fewer jobs for players looking to hire out as tacklers-for-sale.
In France, where around 250 of the 600 players in the Top 14 are foreign, the crackdown is coming from rugby head Bernard Laporte. His goal is to set a cap of five expat players per matchday squad. And, for the first time, punishment for infringing may finally be severe enough to force change – instead of fining the millionaire club owners, Laporte wants to dock the club competition points. That leaves sunny England as an option for the Foreign Legion, but for how long?
The Toulon vs Montpellier game last week was a case in point. Montpellier has 12 South Africans on their books at the moment and four started the match alongside two Georgians, two Fijians and a Kiwi.
That’s nine foreigners in the starting line-up. South Africans who were unavailable included: the Du Plessis brothers, Jacques du Plessis, Jan Serfontein and Frans Steyn. If club owner Mohed Altrad was facing a fine measured in log points for fielding too many expats, it would make no sense for him to invest heavily in such a big group of foreigners.
With those doors closed, a return to South Africa would become the only option for upwards of 200 players, ramping up the competition for a contract with one of the SA Super Rugby or Pro14 franchises.
Consider the Cheetahs or Kings’ Pro14 challenge being boosted by the likes of Robert Ebersohn and Johan Goosen. The Kings, who have lost the likes of former captain Steven Sykes to Oyonnax, Chris Cloete to Munster and Cornell du Preez to Edinburgh, could expect to receive back an arsenal of players with European experience.
The Kings’ offer of continued European exposure would be a drawcard for those returning players, and they could be joined by Anton Bresler, Wynand Olivier or Dewald Potgieter who have roots in Port Elizabeth.
The effect would be massive, sparking huge competition for Springbok places and filtering down to intensify SA’s lower-tier competitions while also ensuring that the country’s emerging talent would be mentored by men with extensive professional careers.
Suddenly Sbu Nkosi is be learning from World Cup winner JP Pietersen, and Robert du Preez and Curwin Bosch are taking lessons in playing fullback and flyhalf from one of the finest in the business, Frans Steyn.
And what if Roelof Smit at the Bulls could get lessons in poaching from master-thief Heinrich Brussow? Think of a weaponised Ramone Samuels or Zain Davids interchanging numbers 2,6 or 8 and mentored by Ashley Johnson.
And the value and intensity of Super Rugby would increase with our Australasian counterparts certain to be boosted by returning talent.
Having high-calibre players back in the arena would increase viewership and drive money back into the sport and, most importantly, the immigration would shift the balance of rugby power from the north back to the south, where it belongs.
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